By Dr. Judy Montgomery, CCC-SLP, Professor, Chapman University

Many children have felt the disappointment of not having clear speech when they entered school.  Many times the tentative, or immature, speech patterns they used at home were warmly embraced by their families and even gently encouraged.  Why not?  It takes a long time to learn to become an accomplished speaker of a language – and small children have many other things on their mind as they are growing up and learning about the world.  Jimmy knew he had lots to say and he was eager to share it!  His words sounded just fine to him in his own head – they just made other people stop, blink twice, and wonder what he was saying.

Using the muscles of our respiratory system and mouth takes a lot of coordination.  Just to say a simple word like “ball” requires 132 muscles to be activated in just the right coordinated sequence – or another word will be said instead.  Sometimes, children don’t even hear all the sounds they are producing.  Speaking is the most complex motor activity we do with our bodies – it is harder than skiing, or typing, or playing a musical instrument!  

Each sound in a language is an individual neuromuscular exercise.  It is produced precisely the same way every time we want to use that speech sound.   We call these speech sounds phonemes.    There are phonemes in every language.   There are 44 phonemes in English. These are not letters, like the alphabet.  There are 26 letters in the alphabet, as we know. The alphabet letters are for spelling words, and writing them to say or read later.  Phonemes are different.  Some may look like English letters when you see them written, but they also include symbols that are not letters.  We need to have these extra symbols to represent sounds that are variations of other phonemes (like long and short vowel sounds) or phonemes that are not represented by any common letters, like the “ch” sound in cheese.  The “ch” sound is not a little bit of the soft “c” sound mixed with a little bit of the “h” sound.  Not at all!  We use those letters to spell it, but not to define it in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA).  


Next time, we are going to learn how the phonemes are produced in the throat and mouth.  Many muscles are involved.  We will learn about our speech helpers, and how to use them well.  Young children are just learning to use their speech helpers to say many phonemes, just as they are learning to use their legs to run faster, or their knees to help them balance on a skateboard!

Another time, we will talk about phonemes in languages other than English.   Jimmy is lucky.  His family speaks English and Italian.  He knows many different ways to produce and understand phonemes. 


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