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The 3 Things to Rule Out When Testing Speech Sound Disorders for Bilingual Children

What influences sound development when a child is learning two languages? Huge question, right? Well I am happy to tell you that there are just three things that we need to take into consideration when we are trying to separate typical development from speech sound disorders when working with bilingual children. It doesn’t matter if we are using standardized or non-standardized measures when we are testing speech, we are still fundamentally looking for three pieces of information:

  1. Do both languages have the sounds?
  2. Can those sounds be used in the same places in the words?
  3. Are the sounds acquired at the age of the child I am testing?

Let’s take a look. We will use Spanish as our example since it is the second most spoken language in 43 of the 50 states.

1. Shared Versus Unshared Sound Comparison for Speech Sound Disorders for Bilingual Children

If a sound doesn’t exist in both languages, we can’t easily separate whether it is a sound error or influence from the home language. The solution? Focus on the shared sounds. Check out this Venn Diagram, the center sounds are shared so sounds like /b/ and /d/ are good targets. Sounds that only exist in English would not be.

Spanish and English phonemes

The center of the Venn diagrams are the sounds that are shared between two languages. The sides of them are the sounds that are unique to each language. In this case, Spanish is on one side and English on the other. With these two languages, you’ll notice there are quite a number of sounds in the English language that don’t exist in Spanish. When our students or clients are making errors only on English sounds, that’s a strong indicator to us that we’re looking at an influence as opposed to a disorder.

You can make a Venn like this for any language. Focus your testing on the center of the Venn.

2. Phonotactics or Sound Placement

If a sound can’t be produced in a specific place in a word, we can’t easily separate whether it is a sound error or influence from the home language. Yes, Spanish has /t/, /g/, and /k/, but none of these sounds can be used in word final position. Do you want to guess how many Spanish-speaking children we find on new caseloads with Final Consonant Deletion goals? Only five consonants can be used in the final position in Spanish, and in many Asian languages there are even fewer consonants that can occur at the ends of words.

So we want to always consider what are officially called “phototactic constraints” that the language has. Check this out for Spanish.

Spanish phonotactics for Bilingual Speech Sound Disorders

The solution? Do artic testing first. If you are then seeing a high frequency of a phonological process, check to see which sounds can be used in each place. We might look at word lists in, say, French to see if there are clusters that are in final position. Or see if Cambodian uses /s/ at the end of words. Sometimes we have to get creative in our approach when we’re working with languages that we can’t readily access that information for. Again, most global languages are “CV languages” (consonant-vowel). Slavic and Germanic languages like English throw consonants everywhere.

3. Age of Acquisition.

If a child is too young for the sound being produced, we can’t easily separate whether it is a sound error or influence from the home language. This one is tough because age-of-acquisition data in other languages is very hard to find. Here is Spanish up against English:

You’ll notice that they don’t line up perfectly. Early on, this is influenced by the sounds in the first few hundred words like “mama” and “dada.” Without much to go on for all the other languages we see, we are better off relying on three pieces of data:

Intelligibility: Intelligibility guidelines are thought to be the same world-over. Meaning, parents understand their three-year-olds and unfamiliar listeners understand four-year-olds.

Aging Out: Most languages acquire all their sounds by age 7ish. English actually has one of the longer spectrums and new research is even bringing that into question. So if you have a 6-year-old or older, you can feel pretty safe thinking they should have all of their sounds.

Caretaker Input: Does the child sound like other students his age and with a similar language background?

Order of Acquisition: One thing we do know is that sounds emerge in generally the same order. Stop consonants for example, come in earlier than affricates. And that tends to be true across the board.

Acquisition variation results from the ambient sounds of the child’s language. We know that variation exists, but we also know that there are some patterns that are pretty consistent across languages. So think clinically about these four aspects of age.

Written by: Scott Prath

7 Comments on “The 3 Things to Rule Out When Testing Speech Sound Disorders for Bilingual Children”

  1. March 9, 2023 at 6:24 pm #

    How does this apply for simultaneous bilingual language learners (Spanish/English)?

    • March 14, 2023 at 2:40 pm #

      Hi Darlene,
      Great question. The same principles apply. Targeting shared sounds in intervention would certainly still make sense, and considering age of acquisition would be the same.

      As far as the sounds unique to each language and the allowable sounds positions, you could see influence from one language to the other and vice versa, or you might see less impact of one language on the other. It would depend a lot on how much input and output they have in each language and what their speech inputs look like.

  2. Darlene March 11, 2023 at 4:48 pm #

    Thank you for this very helpful information.

  3. Jamey Fitzpatrick March 12, 2023 at 2:06 pm #

    Hi Scott,
    This was such a concrete explanation of how important language specific constraints are, and creating a way (like a venn) to visualize phoneme targets that are shared. I love that the research is still evolving on age of acquisition and cultural/linguistic ranges and differences, too, globally, and we can look with fresh eyes at our clients and their speech communities.
    I’m grateful for this excellent resource, and will be sharing it with my grad school peers.
    Thank you so much!

    • March 14, 2023 at 2:35 pm #

      Glad to hear you found it helpful. Please share away!

  4. March 14, 2023 at 7:29 pm #

    This is such great info to revisit.

    A reoccurring issue is hearing a student only understands some of primary home language and does not really speak it. Teachers will state a student’s primary language of use as English. English was not their first language and they continue to reside in a home in which dominate language used is not English. Do the considerations change for such students? How to best serve them?

    Thank you for all you share!!!


    • March 20, 2023 at 11:45 am #

      It is a bigger issue with Language considering that a child can use different sets of vocabulary based on the environment he or she is in. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that Speech is easier but it is definitely more clear cut. I child over the age of 4 should be 100% intelligible to a native speaker of their language(s). Note that intelligible doesn’t mean perfect. Errors in English that DO exist should be explainable based on the fact that the home language doesn’t have those sounds. E.g., TH becoming /d/ or /t/. How to serve them best? Concentrate on the sounds that are shared by both languages.

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