My child is repeating what I say: Is this normal?
Parents often wonder if it’s normal for their child to repeat things others say. For example, when asked a question, a child might repeat the question back instead of answering it (e.g. Parent: “Do you want the slide?” child: “slide?”). This behavior is commonly referred to as echolalia. Echolalia refers to the imitation of words spoken by others. It might be a sound, word, phrase, or even an entire sentence. Sometimes echolalia might be immediate (e.g. a child repeats what they just heard), and sometimes echolalia might be delayed (e.g. a child repeats what they heard previously from a conversation or show).
Is it normal for my child to repeat language?
When it comes to determining whether or not echolalia is normal, there are many factors to consider. Imitating and repeating language is a very important part of language development. As children are developing speech and language skills, we want them to imitate what we do and say, including our gestures, facial expressions, sounds, and words. However, as children become more independent using language, echolalia is expected to decrease. After a certain point in development, echolalia is considered atypical and may indicate weakness in language skills. When determining whether or not echolalia is typical, there are many important factors to consider:
Important factors to consider
- Consider your child’s age. Between 8-12 months, your child should be responding or repeating to your gestures and sounds. Between 1-3 years of age, your child should be repeating words they hear you say, intonation patterns, songs, gestures, and even phrases.
- Consider the novel language your child is able to use. Between 1-4 years of age, your child should also be expanding the language they can use independently. Between 1-2 years of age, your child’s use of different vocabulary words should be expanding, and between 2-3 years of age, your child should begin putting strings of 2-3 words together in phrases or sentences (e.g. mommy go, more juice, etc).
- Consider the frequency of echolalia. How often does your child repeat language? Do they ever use words or phrases independently? Can they answer some questions appropriately?
- Consider when echolalia is occurring. Does it primarily occur when you are giving your child directions? Or when you’re asking questions? Does your child repeat cartoons they hear?
What purpose can echolalia serve?
Echolalia is not simply meaningless repetition, but oftentimes serves a specific function. Here are a few examples:
- Processing spoken language. Some children will repeat language as a compensatory strategy to process spoken language. For example, when given a verbal direction, a child might repeat the direction out loud before actually following it.
- Reduced comprehension of spoken language. Some children might repeat language due to difficulty understanding. For example, when asked a question, a child might repeat the question back, instead of answering because they aren’t quite sure what’s being asked of them.
- Difficulty with expressive language. Some kids might want to communicate, but can’t yet construct their own novel sentence. In order to participate in conversation, they might insert a memorized phrased they’ve previously heard from another person or TV show.
What can parents do to help?
- Bring your concerns to a speech-language pathologist. If you have concerns about your child’s development, seek help from a licensed speech-language pathologist right away. Rather than wait and worry, a therapist will help you determine whether or not your child’s language is typically developing, and strategies to help intervene.
- Model appropriate responses to questions. For example, if you ask your child a “who” question, model the appropriate response using varying volume or intonation to show your child that the answer is separate from the question (e.g. “Who is sleeping?… Puppy!”)
- Use visual support to aid your child’s comprehension of spoken language. As you communicate, use gestures and pictures as much as possible (e.g. Point to your child’s shoes and coat as you tell them “First put your shoes on, then put your coat on”). You can also give your child two choices (e.g. Ask “Do you want milk? Or juice?” as you hold up milk and juice).
- Encourage turn-taking activities. Language is a reciprocal system that involves back and forth exchanges between communicative partners. Turn-taking activities are an excellent way to lay the foundation for back-and-forth communication.