Have you ever evaluated a student who is exposed to two languages and wondered whether their speech patterns were due to a speech disorder or cross-linguistic influence? If so, you are not alone. And, sadly, many of these students get referred for speech therapy when they do not have a speech disorder. In my 20+ years in this field, there has been an increase in research on bilingual speech development, which is great. Sometimes, though, results of different studies seem to contradict one another and it’s not always easy to apply the information clinically.

Comparisons of Monolingual and Bilingual Children’s Speech Development

We look to the research and it presents comparisons of monolingual children and bilingual children but is that helpful in making a diagnosis? Might it be more helpful to know what is typical for bilingual children? Instead of who has a higher percentage of consonants correct, or who uses more phonological processes, why don’t we ask, what are typical percentages or patterns for bilingual children?

Resources for Bilingual Speech Assessment

Our goal in this post is to provide you with some resources for understanding speech development in Spanish-English bilingual children from families who primarily speak Spanish. This includes information about the developmental patterns of phonological processes as well as patterns of speech sound acquisition. Using this information along with the other great resources for assessing speech development in bilinguals will help you make solid diagnostic decisions. These same resources can help you plan therapy goals for bilingual children as well.

Research on Bilingual Speech Development

Let’s explore what the research tells us about the phonological systems of bilingual children. Spoiler alert—the results are all over the map.

I’ve summarized the research for you in the table below. The five columns tell who conducted the study and when, the languages involved in the study, a description of the participants, the findings as related to monolinguals versus bilinguals, and any other pertinent findings. This is a brief summary. If you want to dive in and read any of these, just click on the author’s names in the table and it will take you to the article (you may need to log in or purchase the article from the publisher to access it).

Study Languages Participants Monolinguals Vs. Bilinguals Other Findings
Lin & Johnson, 2010 Mandarin, English 19 monolingual Mandarin speakers and 24 bilingual Englsih-Mandarin-speakers, ages 4-to 5-years old Same number and types of phonological processes Mandarin influence on single word English task
Fabiano-Smith & Barlow, 2010 Spanish, English 8 bilinguals 8 monolingual Spanish Speakers 8 monolingual English speakers Same complexity of phonetic inventories Evidence of influence from English to Spanish and from Spanish to English
Gildersleeve-Neumann, Kester, Davis, & Peña, 2008 Spanish, English Thirty-three 3-year-olds divided into 3 groups: English Only n=10, Predominantly English n=20, and Balanced Bilingual n=3 Bilinguals had lower intelligibility, more phonological processes, and more uncommon patterns than monolinguals The patterns of differences between the groups decreased over time.
Dodd, Holm & Wei, 1997 Cantonese, English 16 children ages 2-to-4 years Bilinguals with SI compared to monolingual peers had lower intelligibility, more phonological processes, more distortions, more uncommon error patterns Bilinguals exhibited different phonological processes in their two languages
Goldstein & Washington, 2001 Spanish, English 12 Spanish-English 4-year-olds. Bilinguals were different than monolinguals, had lower percentage of consonants correct (PCC) Bilinguals exhibited different patterns in English and in Spanish
Goldstein, Fabiano & Washington, 2005 Spanish, English Five children age 5;0-5;5 in each of three groups: Predominantly English speaking (PE), Predominantly Spanish speaking (PS) and bilingual (B) No significant differences between predominantly Spanish speaking, predominantly English speaking and bilingual children’s use of phonological processes There was limited cross-linguistic influence
Grech & Dodd, 2008 Maltese, English 241 children ages 2-to-6 years including 138 Maltese-speaking, 92 Maltese-English bilinguals, and 11 English-speaking Use of phonological processes different for bilinguals and monolingual Maltese speakers Results support separate but interacting phonological systems
Goldstein & Bunta, 2012 Spanish, English 30 5-year-olds (10 monolingual English, 10 monolingual Spanish, 10 bilingual) Bilinguals were the same as Spanish speakers. Bilinguals were different than English speakers Bilingual children’s phonological skills exceed those of monolinguals on certain measures
Wright & Gildersleeve-Neumann (2005) Russian, English 11 monolingual English, 5 Russian-English bilinguals (2 simultaneous, 3 sequential) Bilingual children made more errors than monolinguals. Sequential bilinguals made more consonant errors than simultaneous bilinguals Length of exposure AND timing of exposure influence phonological competence

The Oversimplified Summary of Speech Development in Bilinguals

So, to sum that all up, bilingual children, when compared to their monolingual peers in the area of speech development sometimes appear to be the same, sometimes appear to be more advanced, and sometimes appear to lag behind. Yes, that’s certainly over-simplifying it BUT, you have to agree that the range of results can make your head spin!

Why is there so much variation in the results of studies of bilingual speech development?

  • These studies explore different language pairs (English combined with Mandarin, Cantonese, Spanish, Maltese, and Russian), and the different consonants, vowels, syllable structures, and phonotactic constraints of each language can yield different patterns of influence.
  • Some look only at English speech skills while others look at speech skills in the native language as well.
  • Many of these studies have small sample sizes and we know how much variation there can be in early speech development in children. Thus, a small sample, may not capture patterns well.
  • The primary focus of most of these studies is how they compare to monolinguals in their speech development. While I think this is an important question, I also think it’s important for us to focus on the details of what bilingual speech development looks like.

What does speech development look like in Spanish-English bilingual children?

The data below come from 200 English-Spanish bilingual children ages 3;0-9;11. The children all spoke Spanish as their primary home language. Some were in bilingual programs and some received all academic instruction in English.

We used the Bilingual Articulation and Phonology Assessment (BAPA) to gather speech data.

Here are some of the results. Note that you’ll see Spanish results and English results. These are from the same bilingual children. We’re looking at their use of phonological processes in English and in Spanish on a single word test of articulation and phonology and reporting the average frequency of occurrence for each phonological process.

First you’ll see the use of phonological processes by bilingual English-Spanish speakers from most frequent to least frequent. This is for the group as a whole from 3;0-9;11. The first graph shows their use of phonological processes in Spanish and the second graph shows their use of phonological processes in English.

Phonological Processes in Spanish-English Bilinguals
Phonological Processes in Spanish-English Bilinguals

You were likely quick to notice that these speakers use A LOT MORE phonological processes when they are using English than they do when they are using Spanish.

Why do bilingual children use more phonological processes in English than Spanish?

Recall that these children are from Spanish-speaking homes. Thus, Spanish is their first language and English is their second language. What we see in these children is the use of first-language influence patterns (FLIPs) on top of their typical age-appropriate phonological processes. We dive into that idea more in our online course Phonological Processes in Spanish-English Bilingual Children.

So our graphs for the entire group tell us there is a lot more activity in English than in Spanish. Now let’s take a look at these phonological processes by age.

Developmental norms of phonological processes in Spanish-English bilinguals
Developmental norms of phonological processes in Spanish-English bilinguals

These are exactly the patterns we would expect to see for bilingual children using phonological processes. The use of phonological processes decreases as children get older. Some are used longer than others but they all decrease over time. We broke these down into smaller sets of patterns in our e-book, Developmental Speech and Language Norms for Spanish-English Bilinguals.

Acquisition of English Speech Sounds by Word Position

Another thing that is great to know when conducting an evaluation of a Spanish-English bilingual child is what is typical in terms of English sound acquisition in this group. Another gem in the Development Speech and Language Norms for Spanish-English Bilinguals is the chart that shows level of mastery for each consonant phoneme from age 3 to age 9 for monolingual English speakers and bilingual English-Spanish speakers from Spanish-speaking homes.

This chart was created using data from the same group of children as the charts above for the right side of the chart and from a group of 199 monolingual English speakers for the left side of the chart. There’s a ton packed into this chart so it may seem overwhelming when you first look at it. The levels of sound acquisition are shown at <25%, 25-49%, 50-74%, 75-94%, and greater than 95%. Below is a snippet of the chart to give you and idea. The entire chart can be found in the book, Developmental Speech and Language Norms for Spanish-English Bilinguals.

This is a snippet of a chart that can be found in the ebook Developmental Speech and Language Norms for Spanish-English Bilinguals

How do we use this information clinically? Let’s talk about both Asessment and Intervention.

Assessment of Speech in Bilingual Children

When conducting an assessment, tally the use of phonological processes in each language and compare to these numbers. If you’re using the BAPA, that’s a bonus because that is the tool these data were pulled from. Remember, that this is one piece of the evaluation. We also want to think about intelligibility for familiar and unfamiliar listeners, parent concerns, teacher concerns, and performance on single word and connected word tasks.

Intervention for Speech Disorders in Bilingual Children

Target patterns that are not ones that result from influence from one language to the other. Identify the patterns that your student or client uses with a higher frequency than this group of bilingual children with typical development did. If you use a cycles approach, select several patterns used with atypical frequency and rotate through them.

Take-away points about the use of phonological patterns in Spanish-English children.

Spanish-English Bilingual children from Spanish-speaking homes:

  • Demonstrate a decreasing use of phonological processes over time.
  • Have suppressed most processes by 8 years of age
  • Use more processes and a higher frequency of processes in English than in Spanish.
  • Demonstrate more influence of Spanish on English than of English on Spanish
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