When are speech sounds learned by children across the world?

Sharynne McLeod, Charles Sturt University, Australia (
Kathryn Crowe, University of Iceland, Iceland; Charles Sturt University, Australia (

Background: Many families, education and health professionals think about children’s communication skills when considering health, development and school readiness. Until recently, limited information has been available about communication expectations for children, especially those who speak languages other than English.

Aim: To determine expectations for acquisition of consonants and intelligibility for 4- to 5-year-old children across the world.

Method: Three large-scale reviews of children’s speech acquisition were undertaken:

  • Review 1 analysed 64 studies of consonant acquisition by 26,007 children from 31 countries in 27 languages (Afrikaans, Arabic, Cantonese, Danish, Dutch, English, French, German, Greek, Haitian Creole, Hebrew, Hungarian, Icelandic, Italian, Jamaican Creole, Japanese, Korean, Malay, Maltese, Mandarin, Portuguese, Setswana, Slovenian, Spanish, Swahili, Turkish, and Xhosa) (McLeod & Crowe, 2018).
  • Review 2 analysed 15 studies reporting consonant acquisition of 18,907 children acquiring English in the United States (Crowe & McLeod, 2020).
  • Review 3 analysed 18 studies of parents’ responses on the Intelligibility in Context Scale for 4,235 children from 14 countries (Australia, Croatia, Fiji, Germany, Hong Kong SAR China, Italy, Korea, Jamaica, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Portugal, Slovenia, Sweden, Viet Nam) speaking 14 languages (Cantonese, Croatian, Dutch, English, Fijian, Fiji-Hindi, German, Italian, Jamaican Creole, Korean, Portuguese, Slovenian, Swedish, Vietnamese) (McLeod, 2020)

Results: Across the world, almost all 4- to 5-year-old children are intelligible to family members, friends and strangers, have acquired most consonants within their ambient language, and can produce consonants correctly more than 90% of the time.

Conclusions: Children across the world acquire speech skills at a young age. Some variation occurs and synthesis of knowledge from multiple sources is recommended. However, if families or professionals are concerned, support from communication specialists (e.g., speech-language pathologists) is warranted to reduce impact on literacy, socialisation, behaviour, and participation.

Implications for children: What languages do you speak? Did you know that children are good at learning new languages and saying different sounds in languages?

Implications for families: Most 4- to 5-year-old children are intelligible and can pronounce more than 90% of consonants correctly. If you are worried about your child’s speech contact a communication specialist such as a speech-language pathologist (speech and language therapist).

Implications for practitioners: You should be able to understand 4- to 5-year-old children’s speech. There is a free assessment in 60+ languages to help you determine if professional support is required (

Funding: Australian Research Council Discovery Grant (DP180102848)

Key words: children’s voices, speech acquisition, multilingual, intelligibility

This presentation relates to the following United Nations Sustainable Development Goals: