Remember how hard it was, learning to talk? No? Then you might also have forgotten that echoing, also called echolalia, is a pretty common stage as young toddlers go from single-word-mumbling machines to individuals who use their unique speech patterns to express their very own original thoughts. That’s because echoing or “echolalia” occurs when young toddlers (and, in some cases, older children and adults) repeat or “parrot” back words, phrases, and sometimes even entire sentences that they’ve heard other people say around them. This is, for many children, an important part of the process of learning language.
How children use echoing
Echoing, which happens when young toddlers repeat words or phrases they hear around them, is used by many toddlers as a way to build vocabulary, and to try out new words and sounds. It’s a step away from toddlers understanding the words they’re saying well enough to construct the ideas themselves. Echoing allows them to participate in the conversation, and to experiment with vocabulary and sentence structure. In fact, echoing helps young toddlers use words and phrases they hear adults using, even if they’re not totally sure how to use them or what they mean on their own yet. For example, if you ask them if they want something, they might echo back the end of the question to you, instead of answering yes or no.
Echolalia is common and entirely normal in children between the ages of around 1 and 2, and generally peaks at a certain point (often around 16 months), before starting to decrease little by little.
Sometimes when children use echolalia, it’s as a way of participating in a conversation, even if they’re not sure what they’re trying to say or how to say it yet. Other times, it might be a way of processing a question they’ve been asked, referring you back to the situation when you last said something, or just experimenting with new sounds.
Types of echoing
There are two types of echolalia: immediate and delayed. Immediate echoing might mean that when you ask your toddler, “Do you want me to read you a story?” they agrees by saying “Me to read you a story.” This type of echolalia is common in children who are still figuring out how to construct sentences, even if they’re starting to get the hang of vocabulary.
The other type of echolalia, delayed echoing, happens when toddlers repeat phrases or sentences they’ve heard in the past, even if they’re not in the situation where they first heard them. This might mean repeating lines from a favorite story or video, or it could show up as something you’ve said to them, that they'll never let you forget.
When echoing might mean something else
In most toddlers, echoing or echolalia is a stage that passes by around the time they turn 3, as their language skills develop to the point where they don’t need to echo other people’s words and phrases, and instead can put together the language to express their own thoughts. In children with either general language delays or conditions that can lead to language delays, though, echoing can also be a sign that children don’t have the language skills, vocabulary, or understanding of language to create their own simple sentences.
Most toddlers use at least some degree of echoing as they learn to talk, but most toddlers also grow out of it pretty quickly. By age 2 and a half, echoing should have begun to steadily decrease, and to be replaced by more and more of their own words. If echoing, or echolalia, stays constant through their third birthday, or becomes a toddler’s main way of communicating, it may be a symptom of a language delay or developmental delay.
- Lillian Stiegler. “Dichotomy in the Echolalia Literature: What do we really believe?” American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, 2013. Web.
- “Echolalia: What is it?” nspt4kids. North Shore Pediatric Therapy, February 1 2012. Web.