Phonology and Grammar in Bilingual Children

Is speech sound development related to grammatical development in bilinguals? In a new paper by Cooperson, Bedore & Peña in Clinical Linguistics & Phonetics, we report on a couple of studies where we explored the relationship between children’s articulation accuracy in Spanish and English as related to grammatical production in both languages.

While speech production and grammatical accuracy are related in monolinguals, we wanted to know if these also held true for children who were learning two languages—and if there were any associations across the two languages. While an articulation disorder is different from language impairment—we know that sometimes children with language impairment have difficulties producing grammatical morphemes. So, understanding speech and grammar relationships in bilinguals may contribute to understanding how bilinguals learn their two languages. Also, knowing more about these associations may lead to better insights about differences between bilingual with and without language impairment.

Children with language impairment have particular difficulty with certain grammatical morphemes. Many of these grammatical morphemes are also single sounds such as plural –s and past tense –ed; or just one syllable long with two sounds such as the present progressive –ing. In Spanish unstressed morphemes include direct object clitics such as “lo” and “la” in damelo and damela. Spanish the final ó in past tense (e.g., comió) is stressed. There are other morphemes that have more sounds in them or that are stressed. Examples of these are articles “an” and “the.” Salient Spanish morphemes include those such as present progressive “ –ando” as in caminando. These more salient morphemes don’t seem to be as difficult for children with language impairment.

We completed two main analyses in our study. In the first study, we examined speech and language performance of 186 bilingual (Spanish-English) kindergarten children who participated in our diagnostic markers study. Children took the phonology, semantics, and morphosyntax tests of the Bilingual English Spanish Assessment- Experimental Version and they completed language samples in Spanish and English. Results indicated significant within-language correlations between phonology and semantics and morphosyntax. The morphosyntax-phonology correlations for Spanish and English were stronger than semantics-phonology correlations. There were also associations across languages for phonology.

In the second study, we looked at 6 of the children who scored highest in phonology in both languages and the 6 who scored lowest in phonology in both languages. The phonology score average for the high group was 95% and the average for the low group was 76%. Here we compared grammatical morphemes with high and with low phonetic salience. Both groups of children produced the high salience grammatical morphemes with similar accuracy. But, the children with higher phonological accuracy produced low salience grammatical morphemes more accurately than the children who were less phonologically accurate.

So, what does this mean? First of all from a theoretical point of view, we find that phonology and other aspects of language are related. Also, salience of language structures may affect how well or how difficult it is for children to learn that structure. From a clinical perspective, I wonder if language intervention needs to be accompanied by phonological goals to help boost language skill. It may be possible that a focus on phonological production would help children to master their second language. These ideas are speculative at best and would need more data to make specific recommendations, but it’s interesting to think about.


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  1. #1 by Paul Rafferty on May 19, 2013 - 2:40 pm

    Reblogged this on Boggledash's Blog.

  2. #2 by eacrisfield on May 20, 2013 - 2:29 pm

    Reblogged this on on raising bilingual children and commented:
    This is a very interesting (although somewhat technical) look at the interaction between phonology and grammar in bilingual children. The bottom line – the better their understanding of the phonology of a language, the better their grammar. An important point for kids learning at school in a language they don’t yet master – understanding phonology is key.

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