Spanish Speech Sound Changes (when English is introduced)

Okay, so phonology isn’t my strong suit– probably it isn’t my suit at all, but I have participated in a couple of such studies in collaboration with researchers who know more about this than me. Nonetheless, I’m interested in how children use what they know about one language to bootstrap their way into another language and phonological learning provides another way to look at that.

We (Gildersleeve-Neumann, Peña, Davis, & Kester) have an article coming out this year in Bilingualism: Language & Cognition. We examined Spanish speaking children in a Head Start setting. The 6 children in this study were between the ages of 3 and 4 (an average of 3 years 5 months) at the beginning of the school year and only spoke Spanish. In preschool, they were exposed to both English and Spanish. At the beginning of preschool they could produce all the Spanish vowels, most of the consonants and consonant combinations.

A few months later, children had made gains in their Spanish AND they also made more errors. In terms of gains after 8 months children increased their accuracy in producing consonant clusters. At the beginning of the year they sometimes (about 44% of the time) left out one of the two consonant sounds when producing words like blanco, or brinco. At the end of the year they made these kinds of errors 39% of the time. This change makes sense from a developmental perspective, children should show increasing accuracy in producing the sounds in a language. Also, English has many of the same clusters (and more) and so contact with English could facilitate cluster production in Spanish or at least not affect it negatively.

What about errors? Well, these errors were on vowels. English and Spanish have a different number of vowel sounds (Spanish has 5, and English has 11). First, I want to establish that the percentage of error was very small, between 5 to 9%. Children could produce the vowels corretly most of the time, but they sometimes made errors. So the changes in error were subtle, but significant. Children made more errors at the end of the year in terms of how they produced the vowel. Errors included raising and front/back errors (an example of a front vowel is in hand and an example of a back vowel is in house). What’s important to note here is that these kids made these errors in Spanish. We think that because they were introduced to an 11 vowel system, they had to learn to carve up the vowel space (in terms of where they put their tongue in their mouth to produce the sounds) differently from what they had before. Usually, we tend to pay attention to how L1 influences L2, but here L2 contact influenced L1.

Update: Article now available.


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  1. #1 by Maria on January 28, 2009 - 9:21 am


    A good friend of mine is having a baby next month. She speaks Spanish and her husband speaks English. She doesn’t know what to do about her baby and is under the belief that speaking both languages to the baby will make her “retarded.” I know this is not true and have read the literature on it. However, I’m looking for references that would be easy for her to read/understand. I don’t want to give her all the technical stuff. Can anybody recommend a good book, site, etc?

    Thank you!

  2. #2 by Elizabeth Peña on January 28, 2009 - 9:51 am

    Barbara Pearson has a new book out called “Raising a bilingual child
    See also entry on mental retardation and bilingualism.

  3. #3 by Becky on November 3, 2017 - 10:09 am

    Dr. Pena, Are you aware of any research that looks at how long after exposure to a second language we can expect a child to longer have the two languages influencing speech sound production of the other language?

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