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I am currently writing a narrative featuring many young children. Some of the children are under the age of five, and I'm wondering what the best way to write dialogue for their age group would be. I know that when they're young, they have trouble pronouncing certain consonants and consonant blends, like "l", "r", "v" and "th." When writing dialogue, would we express their mispronunciations and treat it like a dialect?

Example:

"Homewess?" Three-year-old Billy asks. "What does dat mean?"

"It means we haveta wiv in a box," four-year-old Flora answers.

"Wiv in a box?" Billy cries with wide eyes. "I wike wiving here!"

or

"Homeless?" Three-year-old Billy asks. "What does that mean?"

"It means we have to live in a box," four-year-old Flora answers.

"Live in a box?" Billy cries with wide eyes. "I like living here!"

Is it best to leave it to the reader's imagination, or to actually transcribe what their saying?

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    Please be aware that not all children, not even all under-fives, have these speech impediments. If you really want to do this, pick one child and one phoneme (r/w/l, for example) and don't overdo it. – Lauren Ipsum Apr 1 '16 at 21:17
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As someone with a speech impediment myself (far more pronounced as a child) I cringe reading this type of dialog. If it's important to the story, perhaps you could describe the type of impediment (like mixing up w/l sounds in this case) or have another character comment on it (for example if the child is being mocked, the other character might use "wiv" in dialog to emphasize the error). There are also other types of ways in which children speak differently than adults that are less uncomfortable and still 'cute' if that is what you are going for, like mixing up similar sounding words, common (realistic) incorrect grammar mistakes, if it is a very small child using made up words/nicknames for people, and so forth.

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Like Lauren Ipsum said, don't overdo it. I personally prefer a slight dialect over the example you gave, which would become cumbersome if used in more than a few paragraphs. Also, don't make their grammar perfect. I don't mean that you should use garbled grammar, but rather some slight errors, and omissions.

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Personally, I find this style of dialogue (and even when it's done in other media) extremely annoying and (as a father of three) completely unrealistic and unrepresentative of how children speak.

Certainly, some children have trouble with speech and pronunciation, however it's not as cartoonish as often implied. A stammer or stutter is not, however, uncommon, nor is physical emphasis for their words. But again, don't over do it.

Instead of writing an accent, you'd be better served, as others have suggested, in keeping the dialogue simple. Children don't use large words or complex sentences. And a lot of them don't even make sense half the time. And they repeat themselves. A lot.

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Don't do it.

It will annoy/irritate/confuse people who have never been around children or don't like children. People who have been around small children already know what they sound like. As long as you have firmly established that they are very young children (and given your dialogue attribution, this is questionable) then do as Stephen King says and start the detail on the page, but let it finish in the reader's mind. That's always been sage advice.

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    I have children, have worked with children, and love being around children. The examples in the question would drive me insane. Not what kids sound like. With perhaps a few exceptions. – Cyn Jun 8 at 20:48
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Just write the children's dialog normally. Intentionally misspelling chunks of text makes reading difficult and slow. (And if reading a story is too hard, I'm putting the book down.) If it's important for a character to have a speech problem, just tell us what it is. We're pretty good at interpreting the words on the page into the character's voice.

See this question.

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i find this type of writing very quickly irritating. If you ask the reader do do an extra effort understanding what you write, you break the narrative flow. Use phonetic writing mininimaly, and only if you have to.

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Writers seem to believe that readers need every last bit of detail in order to realize the author’s vision. But the truth is, readers aren’t actors who need direction in how to act out a scene exactly. In fact, some of the best performances in acting are the result of the actor winging it or otherwise improvising.

Give your readers a chance to improvise. Tell them a child is speaking, use uncomplicated language, and they’ll read your dialogue in a child-like voice automatically.

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