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January 05, 2012
Speech Sound Errors: Dialect or Disorder?
Considering Accents...
by Kristen L. Dietrich, MS, CCC-SLP

Click here (download #1) for a PDF version of this entire blog entry "Speech Sound Errors: Dialect or Disorder?" (includes the attachment listed below)
As speech-language pathologists, we take great pride in being able to effectively and efficiently answer a variety of challenging and complex questions related to the production and processing of speech and language. It is essential that we are able to explain multifaceted topics in a succinct and meaningful manner. We need to be proficient at summarizing the acquired evidenced-based knowledge and skills gained from years of graduate school and professional experience into a few concise sentences.

Unfortunately, I recently hesitated over my response to a question from a parent regarding how I was able to determine that their child’s articulation error of the /r/ phoneme was considered a disorder and not a part of their native dialect. I have composed the following explanation in the hopes of providing a more eloquent and substantial response to the intriguing question: Is it a dialect or a disorder?

First Things First: What is a speech sound disorder?

To adequately answer this broad question, it is important to first understand the definition of a speech sound disorder. Many children make mistakes as they learn to say new sounds and words. In young children learning to speak any language, speech sound errors are quite common. For example, many young children substitute a “w” sound for an “r” sound as in “wabbit” instead of “rabbit;” or, a child may omit sounds in words as in “nana” for “banana.”

A speech sound disorder may be present when such mistakes occur past a certain age. Every sound in a language has a different range of ages when the child should be able to produce that sound correctly. Generally, children should be able to correctly produce all speech sounds in the English language by the age of 8.
Click here (download #2) for a speech sound development chart by age and gender.

Furthermore, speech sound disorders may include problems with articulation (making sounds) and/or phonological processes (sound patterns), but that is an entirely different topic for another day.

Differences vs. Disorders

Not all sound substitutions (“w→r”  as in “wabbit”) or omissions (“ba” as in “nana”) are speech errors. Instead, they may be related to a feature of a dialect or accent. For instance, speakers of African American Vernacular English (AVVE) dialect may use a “d” sound for a “th” sound as in “dis” for “this.” This is not a speech sound disorder, but rather a phonological feature of AAVE dialect that is different from many other dialects. Likewise, speakers of Southern American English (SAE) dialect may use “y’all” as a contraction of “you all” or substitute “-n” for the “-ing” sound as in, “Where are y’all goin’?” This use of the SAE dialect is different from that of many other dialects, but it is not a speech sound disorder.

Like dialects, an accent is a unique way that speech is pronounced by a group of  people speaking the same language. Accents are an inherent part of all spoken languages of the world and it is important to realize that no accent is better than another. Accents relate specifically to how words in a language are pronounced.

It is the official position of the predominant national governing body on communication sciences and disorders, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), that dialects and accents are NOT a speech or language disorder.

Determining if an Individual’s Speech Production is Part of a Recognized Dialect OR is a Speech Sound Disorder

A speaker of any language or dialect may have a disorder that is unrelated to his/her use of the native dialect. An essential step in determining if a person’s speech sound production is due to a DIALECT or a DISORDER is to be able to distinguish between the following:

1.  regular linguistic patterns that are commonly shared among many people of that speaker’s dialect and are considered to be a normal dialectal difference


2.  irregular linguistic patterns that are rarely/never found among the general population of that speaker’s dialect and represent a true speech or language disorder.

In the case of a person rightly questioning whether a certain distorted speech sound is part of the overall dialect or not, it may be helpful to ask, “Do I hear this particular speech sound produced in this exact manner by most other speakers of this dialect?” If the majority of speakers of a certain dialect do not pronounce the speech sound the same way as the sound in question than it is likely NOT a feature of the dialect.

Who is Qualified to Diagnose a Speech Sound Disorder? What Makes Them Qualified?

A speech-language pathologist (SLP) is the professional who evaluates and treats children or adults with speech and language difficulties, including speech sound disorders. SLPs generally obtain a minimum of six years of higher education and are required to earn at least a master’s degree in the field of communication sciences and disorders (a.k.a. speech-language pathology). Being a “certified” SLP means holding a Certificate of Clinical Competence (CCC), a nationally recognized professional credential that represents a level of excellence in the field of Speech-Language Pathology (CCC-SLP). An SLP with the “CCC” has voluntarily met rigorous academic and professional standards, typically going beyond the minimum requirements for state licensure. They have the knowledge, skills, and expertise to provide high quality clinical services, and they actively engage in ongoing professional development to keep their certification current. (Explanation of SLP and the “CCC” is directly from ASHA’s website – click to go to specific ASHA webpage).

How Does an SLP Diagnose a Speech Sound Disorder?

An SLP listens to the person and may use a formal articulation test to record sound errors. An oral mechanism examination is also conducted to determine whether the muscles of the mouth are working properly. In graduate school, an SLP has been trained to discern between sounds that are typical and atypical to dialects. The SLP may recommend speech treatment if the sound is not appropriate for the child’s age and/or if it is not a feature of a dialect or accent.

Often, there are only slight differences between speech sounds and they are very difficult to detect by the untrained ear or by a person who has grown accustomed to the individual’s speech over a long period of time (e.g, parent/child; husband/wife). Comprehensive SLP graduate courses revolve around the listening and transcribing of speech sounds using the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), an alphabetic system of phonetic notation as a standardized representation of the sounds of all spoken languages. For instance, the IPA notation for the “th” sound is notated by 2 symbols depending on whether it is a voiced or voiceless phoneme – /ð/ as in “this, breathe, father” or /θ/ as in “thing, teeth.”

Additional  Competencies Required for Speech-Language Pathologists to Distinguish between Dialects and Disorders*

The speech-language pathologist must have certain competencies to distinguish between dialectal differences and communicative disorders. These competencies include

  1. recognizing all American English dialects as rule-governed linguistic systems,
  2. understanding the rules and linguistic features of American English dialect(s) represented by their clientele,
  3. being familiar with nondiscriminatory testing and dynamic assessment procedures, such as the following:
    • identifying potential sources of test bias,
    • administering and scoring standardized tests in alternative manners,
    • using observation and nontraditional interview and language sampling techniques, and
    • analyzing test results in light of existing information regarding dialect use.
 *These compentencies are directly from a report located on ASHA’s website at this link
Blog Comments & Questions (1)

September 29, 2011 8:59 PM
This article was extremely helpful and interesting! We were just explaining to my grandson why some people "sound different" than he does (because of accents)...he's only 4, but he's starting to understand the very basics of this concept. Very well written.

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