Paralinguistic Imitation: Why your Toddler should be a “Copycat”

Mimicry and Language Development.

“Stop copying me!” One of those age-old phrases that many a parent of multiple children shudders to hear. While being a “copycat” or mimicking a sibling can be annoying to your other kids, it is actually something that should be encouraged in late talkers and young children.

Imitation or mimicry is when a child copies what they see and hear. This “monkey see monkey do” process is the earliest and the most effective way to learn a new skill. To put it simply: we pay attention while someone else does something and then we try it too. Language development in children progresses in the same way.

Making Faces: Imitation early on

Today, we are considering how a child learns to form words by copying others, but the process of learning through imitation begins before words are ever a thought. Newborns often copy facial expressions and learn about their surroundings and the other people they meet through careful observation of their parent’s expressions and reactions. If mom is talking to a stranger and smiling and laughing, the stranger is friendly. If dad is tense or making angry faces at a stranger, they are dangerous.

A baby who is roughly 3 or 4 months old may try to respond when parents hold and talk to them with cooing or babbling. From six months on, infants learn to copy you with objects, like holding their own bottle. Close to one year old, babies learn to use simple toys and activities after you have shown them how it works, what they should do, and what to expect.

Right after their first year, a toddler will begin to copy gestures such as clapping during fun social games or raising their arms to get you to pick them up. Soon after they may begin waving when they see you wave or point at something interesting after you’ve pointed first.

These are all examples of early forms of communication, learned by watching and copying others.

Reaching to be picked up is a great example of a toddler’s early attempt at communicating.

Actions Speak Louder Than Words… At Least at First.

Toddlers will also imitate your actions during daily life. For example, many kids love to join in when you’re doing chores around the house and will ask to help or simply start pretending to do the same or offer to help.

A child may pick up a remote control, push the buttons, and then babble away as if talking to someone on the phone. At about this same time, toddlers should begin to try to copy your words.

Imitation is a slow and gradual process but one that is critical for a child just learning to talk.

Imitation is so important that this study states that we can look at how well a child looks at, remembers the actions of, and imitates others at 18 months and more accurately predict his or her language development at 36 months than with any other factor. Targeting imitation should be a core focus of developing speech in late talkers.

This study found that two specific skills, the ability to focus on a person or object and immediate imitation, were the most accurate predictors of language ability at age 3–4 years. Toy play and deferred imitation were the best predictors of how quickly communication development occurred in kids age 4 to 6.5 years.

Working on mimicking with your late talker should be a priority to help develop these skills and give them a foundation to build from.

Imitation or Echolalia [EH-koh-LAY-LEE-uh]?

So imitation is always good, right? There comes a time when you may ask yourself, “Is my child copying EVERYTHING they hear?” and, if so, what does that mean for them and for you.

Echolalia is typically a symptom of a deeper issue and may be a cause for concern. Here are some signs to keep an eye out for as your copycat gets older:

  • When your child is repeating not just phrases from people in their family, but snippets from radio, television, or conversations within earshot from strangers
  • Fixating on a handful of phrases and repeating them several times throughout the day
  • Repeating something you know they’ve heard before, but it is not used in the context of their current surroundings; often sounds random or out of place
  • If they are still repeating phrases from others and they are older than the typical “copycat” age range (about 4 and up)
  • More likely to repeat someone than say something unique
  • Frequently repeats a question after hearing it without answering
    • Example: Adult: “What’s your favorite color?” Child: “Favorite color.”
    • This can be especially tricky to detect when children are given options: “Is the sky green or blue?” The child responds “blue” not because it was correct but because it was the last thing they heard. Try changing the order of answers and/or using open-ended questions wherever possible.
  • If you child has been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, they may have echolalic habits or tendencies.

How to get help and advice.

If you suspect your child may be echolalic, you should speak with your child’s doctor or see if you can schedule a screening with a qualified speech pathologist near you.

Want some other tips for late talkers, toddlers, or simply want to learn more about how speech develops in children? Check out our free eBook: Speech-Language Development in Toddlers, A Parent’s Guide.


Sources and Additional Resources.

ASHA: Remediating Echolalia in a Child with Autism

Healthline: Echolalia

Study: Quantifying Repetitive Speech in Autism Spectrum Disorders and Language Impairment

Study: Autism Spectrum Disorders in Young Children

Article: Journal of Child Language: Rethinking echolalia: repetition as an interactional resource in the communication of a child with autism

 

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