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Dialectal Differences – Is It a Speech Delay?

I grew up in Newfoundland, Canada, and have since lived in New Brunswick, Southern Ontario, Northwestern Ontario, and have now settled in Edmonton, Alberta. I speak with a “Newfie” accent. Most “mainlander” Canadians will know that Newfies have a unique way of speaking; we speak English but have a (sometimes thick) accent and use some words differently than our mainlander friends. Since moving to western Canada, I have noticed this dialectal difference even more in myself. So, let’s talk about accents and dialectal differences – are they considered a delay, and do they need attention from a Speech-Language Pathologist?

What is a dialect?

Language is a fluid, ever-changing method of communication. It evolves over time and when communities are separated, their language develops differently. A dialect is “a regional or social variety of language distinguished by pronunciation, grammar, or vocabulary, especially a variety of speech differing from the standard literary language or speech pattern of the culture in which it exists.” For myself, I use certain words for things that the mainlanders around me do not use. For example, I say “garden” instead of “yard”, “lane” instead of “street”, and “where ya to?” when asking where someone is.

How do dialects develop?

Dialects develop when communities are separated and the way their language is used has the opportunity to develop independently from others using the same language. Looking at Newfoundland as an example, it is an island province and was owned by the British for much longer than mainland Canada. A lot of the dialectal differences that can be observed in Newfoundlanders can be attributed to British and Irish influence. Thinking larger scale, accents and dialects can be found all over the world for the same language. French is a great example – Metropolitan/Standard French spoken in France is vastly different from the dialect of French-Canadians and the Cajun French spoken in the bayous of Louisiana, USA. Everyone is speaking French, but the differences in accents and vocabulary use are considerable.

The role of a Speech-Language Pathologist

When it comes to accents and dialects, SLPs do not make corrections. Language is unique and needs to be preserved. When a child has an accent, they are not making errors in their speech sounds, they are simply using the speech sounds they were introduced to as they learned to speak. For example, if I see a child who uses a “th” sound instead of an “s” sound in certain words, but their Spanish parents also do it, it is not an error. For myself, an example would be saying “mudder”, “fadder”, and “Dezember” instead of “mother”, “father”, and “December” – my parents also pronounce those words that way.

To determine whether certain speech sounds are language-influenced differences or delays I always do a detailed assessment interview with a child’s parents to talk about other languages present in the home, and the child’s milestones. I also do a standardized speech assessment with the child. There is a great book on this subject called Difference or Disorder: Understanding Speech Language Patterns in Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students by Dr. Ellen S. Kester.

There is an area of Speech-Language Pathology that focuses on accent modification or reduction. This type of treatment is offered when the patient chooses and can be sought out for several reasons including to be understood easier, repeating themselves less, and to feel more confident speaking their non-native language. It is important to remember that work in this area is not done as treatment to “correct” a delay, but rather as optional training that a speech-language pathologist can accommodate.

Your accent is part of you!

If your child is bilingual, multilingual, speaks with an accent, or with a regional dialect your Speech-Language pathologist can determine what parts of their speech are influenced differences, and what might be a speech delay or disorder. I believe your dialectal differences make you beautifully unique, and those differences need to be preserved. At Simon Says Speech Inc. In Edmonton, Alberta I offer assessment, consultation, and speech and language therapy to children 0-18 years old.

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