Easy and Hard Sounds

We have a new paper looking at the relationship between children’s dual-language exposure and age of English acquisition on production of early- middle- and late-acquired sounds. Previous work by Leah Fabiano-Smith & Brian Goldstein shows that children are most accurate on early developing sounds compared to later developing sounds. Further, bilinguals show the same pattern although they may be a little less accurate as a group compared to monolingual English and monolingual Spanish peers. In the current study, we wanted to explore the influence of children’s experience in Spanish and English and how this experience might influence sound production. We were also interested in how parent and teacher ratings lined up with children’s production accuracy given their level of experience in each language.

A total of 91 kindergarten Spanish-English bilinguals participated. We used the phonology subtest in Spanish and English from the BESA and children named each picture. Each word production was transcribed and the sounds classified as early- middle- and late-acquired (within each language).

There were interesting associations with age of acquisition and percentage of use/exposure. First, both of these factors explained part of the results. But, percentage of current use/exposure explained more of children’s phonological accuracy than first age of English exposure. So, while age that children start using a second language matters, what matters more is current use.

Children who used English more were more accurate on late-acquired English sounds than children who used Spanish more. But, they had similar accuracy on English and Spanish early- and middle-acquired sounds. In Spanish, the patterns were different. Spanish dominant children were more accurate on Spanish early-acquired sounds compared to English early-acquired sounds. But they were similarly accurate on Spanish middle- and late- and English middle- and late-acquired sounds.

Parent and teacher ratings of intelligibility in each were associated with greater use/exposure in that language. And parent and teacher ratings of Spanish intelligibility were associated with consonant accuracy in Spanish.

So, what does this mean? I think that we need to think about whether children have enough experience in a given language to accurately produce the sounds of the language. We need to think about whether sounds are acquired early- or later. Maybe if children are in the process of learning a second language and they are accurate on early- but not late-acquired sounds that is to be expected. Also, what may be an early developing sound in one language is not necessarily an early developing sound in another language. So, these differences need to be taken into account. Difficulty is relative to the other sounds that are in the inventory in a given language.

For English ratings, it may be that children still in the process of learning the sound system would receive lower ratings leading to over-referral. It is thus important to look their mastery of sounds classified by early-, middle- and late-developing. Parents and teachers likely need more information about typical sound development in bilinguals– especially in the second language.



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