Behavioural Signs And Symptoms Speech Therapy

Echolalia is an Actual Language Learning Phenomenon!

Most neurotypical children use Echolalia in the acquisition of their mother tongue. This is between the ages of 18-36 months. Repeating words and phrases is an absolutely normal part of childhood development. It helps children learn the nuances of their home language as one speaks it. Have you ever wondered how adults use Echolalia in language learning?

As an English language specialist, I see neurotypical adults using Echolalia every day. We just never label it as Echolalia. Commonly, when adults learn English as an additional language, whether it be a second, third or fourth language, they use this tool to learn the same aspects of the language that first language children do at that early stage of language development.

The learners often mimic teachers when saying certain phrases. We even use the technique of “read and repeat” with students in the early stages of learning. The reason for this is simple; that it’s not just what you say, it’s also how you say it that makes a speaker of an additional language proficient.


Adults use Echolalia or “listen and repeat” for the following reasons:


  • Sentence structure: each language has a unique sentence structure. A mother tongue speaker can easily hear it as correct or incorrect. However, to a speaker learning a new language, that must be logically taught.


  • Pronunciation: languages share letters but the sounds of these letters are different in each. For example, English has 5 vowel letters but 12 vowel pronunciations.


  • Intonation: the “music” of a language often conveys meaning. This adds more to the words than just their definitions. Without proper intonation, the speaker can sound harsh, abrupt or just impolite.


  • Word stress: here meaning one can alter if the correct syllable in a word is not stressed. This varies from language to language.


  • Sentence stress: by stressing different words in a sentence, you can alter the underlying intention with which that sentence is said.

So why am I telling you all this?


My 12-year-old son with ASD started speaking at 4 years of age. He has learned, not acquired his mother tongue.  He often uses Echolalia in exactly the same way my clients (speakers of foreign languages learning English) do. One needs to teach him each aspect of the language, formally, and he learns it intellectually. For him, his mother tongue is not something he hears as correct or incorrect. It’s rather something he has learned through practice and exercise.

I often hear myself in his speech. For example, I have a particular way of saying “I have no idea”. I’ve heard him mimic me often and even practice this phrase when he’s playing. After a while, he learned to use it appropriately but always it sounds exactly as I say it.

My son’s mother tongue learning and my foreign speaker clients learning of English are so strongly similar, I find using the same methodology and techniques very helpful. Adult “echolalia” is such a useful tool in our lives.


– Sam Daries

Director at South African Language Academy

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