“No” and “Mama”

I have been trying to teach T to say “mama” for months now, but despite my effort, he will often look at me after I say “mama,” laugh, and yell “DADA” – until now!

This past weekend, T started saying “na” and “nuh nuh,” and once he started, that was pretty much all he said for two straight days. And then, within a few days of starting to say “na,” T started saying “ma” and “mama”! He doesn’t yet associate me with “mama,” but we’re working on that part now! Also, earlier this week, T’s speech therapist mentioned that T seems to have associated the concept of negation with the “nuh nuh” sound, so it’s only a matter of time before he starts saying “no!”

I thought it was really interesting that T started saying “ma” once “na” clicked with him, and I started thinking about this in the context of the order T has learned different consonant sounds and his preference for producing different consonant sounds.

There are 3 main features that distinguish different consonant:

  1. Place of articulation – this feature indicates the part of the mouth that’s involved in obstructing airflow to produce the consonant sound. Examples are: “bilabial” (with the lips pressed together, like in /b/, /m/, or /p/), “alveolar” (with the tongue touching the top of the mouth behind the gum ridge, like in /d/, /n/, or /t/) and “velar” (with the tongue pressed against the soft palate, like in /g/ and /k/).
  2. Manner of articulation – this feature indicates the configuration and interaction of the parts of the mouth involved in the obstruction. Examples are “stops” (where airflow stops completely during the articulation, like in /b/, /p/, /d/, /t/, /g/, and /k/), “nasals” (where air flows through the noise during articulation, like in /n/ and /m/), “fricatives” (where air flows through a small channel during articulation to make a “hissy” sound, like in /s/, /sh/, /f/, and /zh/), and “approximants” (where there is very little obstruction in airflow, like in /l/, /w/, and /y/).
  3. Voicing – this feature indicates when obstruction of airflow stops and vibration of the vocal folds begins. For example, /b/ and /p/ are both bilabial consonants (produced with the lips pressed together), but they differ in voicing – /b/ is “voiced”, whereas /p/ is “voiceless” – you can hear the difference in how /p/ has a kind of “pop” or attack when you produce a “pa” sound.

I started thinking about how T’s preferences for different consonants and the order that he started producing them aligns with these different features.

Here’s a chart showing when T first started producing different consonant sounds (purely based on my recollection – I never wrote any of this down!)


When T first started producing different consonant sounds, organized by place and manner of articulation. For stop consonants, the top row indicates voiced consonants and the bottom row indicates voiceless consonants. The color of the consonant indicates when T first began producing the consonant, as indicated by the legend on the right.

And here’s a chart showing how frequently T says different consonant (regardless of when he first learned to say them), again based purely on my informal impressions:


Frequency with which T says different consonant sounds.  The color of the consonant indicates how frequently T says the consonant, as indicated by the legend on the right.

I think that T’s “favorite” consonants (based on how frequently he says them) tend to be those with an alveolar articulation (/d/, /n/, and /l/ in particular – I think you can kind of see this in the middle column of the second chart). Looking at the first chart (middle row), you can see that he started producing nasal sounds only recently (these are /m/ and /n/). It kind of makes sense to me, in hindsight, that of the nasal sounds, he’d start producing /n/ first, since he seems to prefer the alveolar place of articulation over the bilabial articulation. It kind of seems like T needed a little time to get the hang of the nasal manner of articulation, and that once he started with nasal sounds, he started with the place of articulation that comes most naturally for him (the alveolar articulation) before trying an articulation that’s more difficult for him (the bilabial articulation).

The order and preference of T’s consonant production development has been especially interesting to me in light of articles like this one (which I read before I had T!) that say that babies tend to say sounds that sound like “mama” first because it’s one of the easiest sounds. Clearly, T is an independent thinker!



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