What's up with my mini-Malaprop?
February 7, 2017 10:17 AM   Subscribe

My 3.5-year-old seems to make a lot of wrong-word mistakes-- way more than their siblings at that age. What could cause this?

My toddler is developing normally, hit all language milestones on time or early, and speaks fluently and well. BUT I've noticed that, weirdly, they seem to have a conspicuously high rate of malapropisms, i.e. odd misuses of one word for another. Usually they're somewhat similar in sound, e.g. "crest" for "chest," or of similar grammatical formations, e.g. "rocker" for "coaster." The frequency isn't that high-- we're talking maybe a few times per week tops-- but while my other children definitely made various language mistakes, this specific word-for-word substitution error is a strange and new one to me.

I'm interested in knowing what's going on, and whether there's any literature on this developmental phenomenon-- is it just that the kid is more adventurous in trying to deploy vocabulary before it's been properly learned? Could it be a marker for some other cognitive feature, or even a developmental warning sign? Has anyone encountered this, or is there a word for it out there? Thanks!
posted by Bardolph to Health & Fitness (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Have you had their hearing checked recently?
posted by colfax at 10:22 AM on February 7, 2017 [4 favorites]

Get his or her hearing checked.

Otherwise it is likely to be just an ordinary neurological difference in language fluency, where one kid has more verbal skill in certain areas than others. This might, potentially be a marker for future verbal creativity, and if your child is interested it might lead to him or her being better than average at coming up with rhymes. If it is not because your child has trouble distinguishing between 'crest" and "chest" due to hearing problems it may be that your child is more able to retrieve a range of similar sounds than your earlier children. It might also mean that your child will have more trouble retrieving words or speaking, so give your kid lots of practice talking. It's time to encourage him or her to tell you stories, or describe things that happened to get that practice.
posted by Jane the Brown at 10:25 AM on February 7, 2017

Is it possible that this is your own confirmation bias? Unless you kept a rigorous record of every language mistake each of your children has ever made*, I feel like at least some of this comes down to your own perspective. Humans tend to see patterns even where they don't really exist.

* Please don't do this.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 10:28 AM on February 7, 2017 [10 favorites]

A few miswords per week seems normal for any person of any age. I wouldn't worry about this unless the frequency significantly increases.
posted by Kalmya at 10:48 AM on February 7, 2017 [3 favorites]

This is purely anecdata, but my friend's child at that age also did this. I assumed it was because he suddenly became highly verbal in a short period and was working out sounds, grammar rules and definitions at an accelerated pace, so he made more mistakes than a less verbal child would have.

He's 5 now and this no longer happens, at least not the way it did when he was younger.
posted by ananci at 11:04 AM on February 7, 2017 [4 favorites]

It feels weird to say "Oh yeah, this is SUPER common." when I don't have children of my own but...this is super common. Jean Berko Gleason is kind of the standard bearer for child language development if you want to look into this on your own. My guess is your other children did this too and you were maybe less aware of it. For the life of me, I can't remember the term.

Your child is two or three? At that age they start developing the syntax of their language, and phonetics/phonemics (sounds) will fall by the wayside. I remember the professor that taught our language development class told us that it seemed like her children were going backwards for a few months. Pronunciations that never used to be a problem sprung up almost over night. Basically, your toddler is using all their brain energy toward forming new grammar rules and they're paying a lot less attention to what's coming out of their mouths. From a child's perspective it's just kind of like come on Mom, you know should know what I'm getting at.

I went through this with my niece. It's a lot of fun to learn how children learn language because when they figure something out or learn something new, you can see what's going on in their head. Have fun with it!
posted by Bistyfrass at 11:21 AM on February 7, 2017 [6 favorites]

You can ask your pediatrician to chat with your little one and then get their input and direction. I suggest this because our doctor was the one who pointed us to a physical therapist help our two young boys when they were a bit behind on some motor and language marks, things we hadn't been worried about ourselves.

Part of this may be because we're in a region/ state where these early child services are available at no charge to parents, so our pediatrician was doing her due diligence to make sure those services are used. Whatever her reason, our bigger guy (a late walker and talker) is running and hopping around, often while describing various dinosaurs, like nobody's business, and his little brother is getting more "talkative" (we understand most of what he says, but that's because we have more context and history for his near-words).

That is to say, there seems to be a broad range of "normal" for young kids, and probably people in general. Progress for kids seems to come in in fits and starts. I suggest that you don't stress too much, especially if your pediatrician isn't concerned, unless your pediatrician is on the lax end of the scale of concern, or you're really not comfortable with something - then trust your parental judgement.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:29 AM on February 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

Keep an eye on it over the next few years. Language acquisition changes over time, especially between the years of 5 and 7.

I say this being the parent of two bilingual kids (true bilinguals; English and Japanese) who attend French Immersion schooling in Canada.

I wouldn't worry about it right now, but just keep an eye on things.
posted by My Dad at 11:54 AM on February 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

Sounds like a lot of consternation over a place for beams...

More seriously, agree with all the others: barring hearing problems this sounds totally normal even if there's no confirmation bias.
posted by SaltySalticid at 11:57 AM on February 7, 2017 [5 favorites]

Could it be a marker for some other cognitive feature, or even a developmental warning sign?

It could be. It would impossible based on this alone to determine exactly what that is.

Some things that could contribute:

Thinking in pictures (like Temple Grandin)
Having already learned to read without telling you and, thus, having not mastered English's weird, excessive quirks concerning pronunciation, thus completely mispronouncing words learned first from text instead of from having heard it.
Being 2xE (twice exceptional: Gifted AND learning disabled).
Being gifted. Gifted kids, especially around this age, jump to all kinds of weird conclusions based on a combo of high IQ plus limited life experience. This often goes goofy places.

It could also be completely developmentally normal. Your anecdote is insufficient to point in any particular direction.
posted by Michele in California at 12:17 PM on February 7, 2017

I work in a research lab that studies language development. These "slips of the tongue" are pretty typical in language learners, even adult second language learners. Hell, even in adults speaking their native language. Researchers theorize that this happens because when we try to think of a particular word, we may have other words that are similar, either semantically or phonetically, that "compete" with the word we need. Children, inexperienced speakers (second language learners), or disordered speakers often have greater conflict between these similar words and make more errors in speech (i.e. they choose the wrong word). Adults will often correct their speech (though sometimes they don't), and kids do start correcting their speech more and more as they get older. Research finds that these errors decrease as kids get older and their speech production matures.

If you are concerned, I always encourage parents to speak with their pediatrician. I am not a speech language pathologist or a doctor, and I obvious cannot speak about your specific kiddo. If you'd like to message me, I can send a few articles that talk about this phenomenon.
posted by ancient star at 12:22 PM on February 7, 2017 [7 favorites]

Keep in mind a person can have fine hearing but an a processing issue that won't be picked up without extra testing. I am not saying that's necessary here though! This also seems normal to me as a parent.

For what it's worth, my children had more malapropisms at their age than others because we read so much - they heard an advanced vocabulary but didn't know how to pull it off in speech all the time. :) This has decreased with age and of course, served them well overall.
posted by hapaxes.legomenon at 3:36 PM on February 7, 2017

Could it be that, as the youngest, they don't get as much undivided attention as your older children, and so they have developed their own style of speaking? My second daughter had a number of very cute figure of speeches that we didn't correct because we sort of cherished her babyness in a way we didn't with our older daughter- we were much more likely to correct her, and "teach" her.
posted by momochan at 1:08 PM on February 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

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