A weally hawd question
January 30, 2010 6:45 PM   Subscribe

Why do little kids pronounce "r" as "w"?

My 4-year-old, like a lot of kids his age, doesn't really pronounce the phoneme "r": "car" is "caw" and "Laura" is "Lowa." Why? Is there something physically more difficult about pronouncing this sound than others? Do children in other language communities also make this substitution? Or do other languages have different "hardest phonemes?" (In English, I guess "f" for "th" is just as common as "w" for "r," and my son does both.)
posted by escabeche to Science & Nature (25 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
It's not always a matter of "can't pronounce". My 4 year old daughter occasionally switches from her normally perfect pronunciation of "r" sounds to the "w" sound. Sometimes she does this because she's been playing with other kids who don't pronounce their "r" sound. Other times she does it when she's being really whiny or when she's pretending to be a baby.

I have a theory that some kids develop this tendency because their parents consistently use baby talk to communicate with them and don't model proper pronunciation. Or that parents might reinforce the incorrect pronunciation because it's just so darn cute (and sometimes it really, really is).

But I've got no data here, just anecdotal musings.
posted by wabbittwax at 6:51 PM on January 30, 2010

I did "f" for "th" until I was, oh, six or seven; I remember at some point seeing somebody to help fix this although I don't remember what they did.
posted by madcaptenor at 7:00 PM on January 30, 2010

Making the 'r' sound requires the tongue to be drawn slightly back and the back of the tongue to be pressed against the upper teeth. This is much more difficult than the 'w' sound, which is primarily created by your lips.
posted by puritycontrol at 7:13 PM on January 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

My three year old has just been tested for some speech related stuff. We can hardly understand a word he says. It was interesting to hear what the speech therapists said about his difficulties.

My son does not/cannot (at this point) say "(hard) g," "r," "c," "k," "q" sounds. Say them yourself. Notice how the letter/sound is formed at the back of the mouth - almost in the throat. Yeah . . . for some reason being able to pull those sounds to the back where they should be is difficult, and sometimes more difficult for some kids than others. The speech therapists said that it's nothing new or special - that many many toddlers struggle with those sounds. I think it just takes practice to get those sounds where they should be (back of the mouth). I have no theories on why some children struggle with it and others don't. We never ever spoke baby talk with our three children, yet to some degree they all struggled with these sounds. In every other way, though, they are extremely bright gifted kids.
posted by Sassyfras at 7:16 PM on January 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

(and I should add - my two oldest have outgrown this, while the third is getting a little extra help with speech, but should be on track soon enough).
posted by Sassyfras at 7:17 PM on January 30, 2010

Best answer: I believe the term that describes this is called "gliding of liquids," and it's interesting that it's actually also present in some upper-class-sounding (to my ears) English accents -- and even, bizarrely, in one American I've met who sounded exactly like Elmer Fudd.
posted by chinston at 7:19 PM on January 30, 2010

I remember having a hard time pronouncing r's when I was young. I suspect it's the tongue contortion that creates an 'r' sound instead of a 'w' sound that makes it difficult for some kids. That's what it was for me, anyway. I remember pwacticing and pwacticing, but I don't remember a specific time when I finally got it. It must have been a gradual thing as the muscle memory developed.

I don't remember this, but my mom likes to tell the story of when I was even younger and couldn't pronounce 'j' and 'sh' sounds properly, using a hard 'k' sound instead. One night my parents had guests over for dinner and apparently I wasn't satisfied with my dessert portion, because much to mom's horror I announced very loudly and insistently that I wanted some more fudge on my dish.
posted by Balonious Assault at 7:26 PM on January 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Balonious, my son has shouted "I need a fork!" at family dinners to similar effect.
posted by escabeche at 7:34 PM on January 30, 2010

Response by poster: chinston's term "gliding of liquids" leads to this relevant and very interesting page, which suggests that if madcaptenor learned how to say "th" at 6 he was actually rather advanced!
posted by escabeche at 7:38 PM on January 30, 2010

Best answer: I'm sure an actual developmental linguist will show up on this thread sooner or later. I'm not one, but this question interested me and I poked around on the web a bit. Apparently the general term for systematic changes in pronunciation like the "w" for "r" substitution is "phonological processes," and that particular substitution is called "gliding." (The "w" sound is classified as a "glide" -- I do remember that from Linguistics 101.) It looks like gliding is one of the last of these to typically disappear as children age -- maybe that's why it stands out so much?

Wikipedia also mentions that these processes "often resemble processes that are typically common in the adult phonologies of the world’s languages," which is interesting, because it suggests that these aren't necessarily errors as such. The second article I'm linking to below says as much, too.

Links: None of that really answers your specific (and really great) questions about the reasons or about other languages. Can't wait to see what the actual developmental linguists have to say.
posted by fermata at 7:38 PM on January 30, 2010

Speech pathologist here: puritycontrol's got the gist of it.

Some sounds are just harder than others for kids to "get". I've seen some research/charts (albeit pretty old) that puts the age of acquisition of /r/ as late as 7 or 8. Also, like other commenters noted, fricatives and affricates (voiced and voiceless TH, SH, CH, J) are also later developing but none are as difficult as /r/. It's also a bitch to fix.

And fyi you cant cause a speech disorder by talking babytalk to your kids. :|
posted by lilnublet at 7:40 PM on January 30, 2010 [7 favorites]

Well, escabeche, it's possible that I'm misremembering the age. If I learned to say things *earlier* than expected then I don't know why I would have seen somebody; my parents aren't the type to freak out about that sort of thing.

(I know I have the sound right, though, because I was saying "free" instead of "three". I liked numbers (I still do!) and so I said "three" a lot even then.)
posted by madcaptenor at 7:45 PM on January 30, 2010

Here is something easy that I was told helps strengthen children's aural co-ordination and hastens the acquisition of sounds like "r" and "th:" get rid of the sippy cup. I had my own child switch from a sippy cup to a regular cup at the advice of her occupational therapist when she was 4 and having some slightly extended pronunciation difficulties; it was amazing to me how quickly after that her speech became comprehensible to everyone. This is not scientific advice, but it can't hurt.
posted by fullofragerie at 7:51 PM on January 30, 2010

Yeah, don't remember doing that myself, but my littlest (now 12) did this, it was very cute too because his vocabulary was so good for his age (I think). One that sticks out in my mind is "I wuv pwovewone (provelone) cheese, pwovewone is my faowit!" All my other kids at that age or younger had some speech or (motor) coordination issues (except one).
I suspect it is a maturity thing. I remember being about three years old and being vey frustrated at not being able to snap my fingers like my mom could. The coordiation was just not there yet, and it seems I tried it again one day and there it was!
I would guess "baby talk" has to do with it sometimes, but I never used it with my kids and don't recall anyone (except non-family) using it with me (as far as that goes, I think kids see past that and think it's strange when adults do it, unless that's what they hear every day!)
One day he/she will just stop doing it and that part of history is over forever. If everything else is okay there shouldn't be any concern, just enjoy the cute-ness, pretty soon he/she will be a teenager!
posted by bebrave! at 8:00 PM on January 30, 2010

puritycontrol pretty much answered this - I'd add that you should make each sound yourself a few times and simply be aware of what your tongue and lips are doing. It'll be obvious how close these two sounds are to one another. I had a hard time (like many Eastern Europeans) making the distinction between "w" and "v" in the beginning, for similar reasons.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 8:04 PM on January 30, 2010

My son had a LOT of sinus/ear infections when he was young. His tonsils were just too big for his head. He did the r --> w thing until he had his tonsils out and tubes put in his ears. Then the r --> w thing went away almost immediately.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 9:16 PM on January 30, 2010

As lilnublet said, baby talk won't give your child a speech disorder with baby talk. In fact, the behaviors associated with "baby talk" (repetition, simple sounds, nonsense words, high-pitched and sing-song tones, rhyme, simplified syntax, use of the child's own grammatical errors particularly w/r/t pronouns, plain silliness) are important in the acquisition of language.

I imagine it's not great if they never hear anything BUT baby talk, but all the negativity towards baby talk makes me sad -- language is a game for babies and toddlers, and baby talk is how adults play it!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:27 PM on January 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

My linguistics classes were quite a long time ago, but if I recall it's basically that its harder for to pick up on how adults are making the sounds that are produced further back in the mouth.
posted by jjb at 9:52 PM on January 30, 2010

Best answer: Just an update: I looked up the data i was thinking of (top right chart) and acquisition (as late as) 8 is for /s/ /z/ /v/ voiced TH and zh (as in measure). /r/ should be in place by /6/. I think there's some debate regarding that info though.

/r/ IS still a bitch to fix tho.
posted by lilnublet at 9:53 PM on January 30, 2010

Best answer: The thing that makes /w/ a natural substitution for /r/ is the fact that the pronunciation of English /ɹ/ ("r") also usually involves rounding of the lips (at least at the beginning of syllables). The rounding part is external, therefore easier to pick up on and easier to produce, while articulating the tongue is more difficult and hidden. So, the rounding often comes first (making /w/), and the tongue portion comes after.

The reason that /f/ is a common substitute for /θ/ ("th") is the fact that both are fricatives, meaning that they both have the same manner of articulation. But /f/ is, again, made using the lips (easy to see, easier to make), while /θ/ is tongue on teeth.
posted by kosmonaut at 10:44 PM on January 30, 2010

Personal anecdote: At the age of 6 or 7 I remember talking with my parents regarding my inability to say 'the letter at the beginning of wabbit'. I spent a while trying very hard but with little effect, but after a few years it gradually improved and by my early teenage years I could get away with a perfectly reasonable sounding r.
I always felt as though my top lip/teeth could not get it together.
posted by xla76 at 12:42 AM on January 31, 2010

Best answer: just to add a language community:I taught a wee lassie here in Russia- she didn't have difficulty with w and v, enjoyed th, but pronounced r as either oo, w or l. The soft English was w, the rolled Russian was l. She finally got it aged 5. Anyhow, I asked around because of that and it's common in Russia.
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 7:38 AM on January 31, 2010

I was just thinking about this the other day. I've noticed one of my second cousins who is about 10 or 11 still makes this substitution. I was personally wondering whether the fact that her grandmother (who she was around a lot until her death a few years ago) had a very strong Boston non-rhotic accent had any bearing on this. Linguists?
posted by MattMangels at 12:59 PM on January 31, 2010

I couldn't say the r sound until about 8 and went to a speech therapist at school for it. I recall different exercises to practice, but mostly grrring with respect to the tongue being very tight and the throat controlled. When I explain this to people, I have them repeat "radio, wadio, radio, wadio" to feel the similarity when making the two noises. It's mainly just retraining to say the r sound further back in the mouth.

Damned if I still refuse to say the word "rural" though. :)
posted by elliss at 9:24 PM on January 31, 2010

Best answer: Just jumping in here, lots of good answers. From a purely articulatory perspective, the point about [w] and [ɹ] both having lip involvement is true. But, moreover, the [ɹ] involves a constriction of the throat. I don't really think that there is an equivalent sound in (American) English.

So, while the sounds [w] has two "points of articulation": labial and velar (soft palate) the [ɹ] actually has three: labial (or probably more accurately labio-dental), alveolar (front of hard palate, right behind the teeth) and pharyngeal. These aren't full contact points (as both are glides or approximants) but they are areas of constriction in the mouth.

The rhotic sounds like [ɹ] also have a pretty peculiar effect on the acoustics of the sound. They lower the formants (the louder bands of harmonics of the voice that we perceive as different specific sounds). I don't know how this plays into a child's perception of the sound--maybe it is something they don't pick up on right away.

I too didn't acquire [ɹ] until I was around 7 or 8. I also couldn't pronounce the "sh" sound either. I suspect that I was having trouble with the retroflexion of the tongue that is required for both.

(Ph.D., Linguistics, last century)
posted by robabroad at 2:53 PM on February 2, 2010

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