Wednesday 2 March 2011

Bilingual phonological development is like driving in traffic
=Guest post=

by Brian A. Goldstein

Phonological development of bilingual children is a little like driving in traffic to and from work – sometimes you accelerate, sometimes you decelerate, and sometimes you just idle. I prefer acceleration, but I know I can’t do so all the time. I know there will be times when I have to slow and times when I just stop and wait. Bilingual phonological development is much of the same. Whether you are able to notice acceleration, deceleration, or idling in bilingual phonological development depends on what you’re looking at and when you’re looking at it.

These notions of acceleration, deceleration, and idling are not mine. They’re hypotheses from Paradis and Genesee (1996). A couple of preparatory notes. First, their original terms were acceleration, delay, and transfer. In a recent paper (Fabiano-Smith and Goldstein, 2010), Leah Fabiano-Smith and I changed delay to deceleration. We did so because in our field (speech-language pathology), the term delay is a clinical one indicating a disorder, usually requiring intervention to ameliorate the problem. So, we did not want to conflate the two terms. We also thought it was a nice parallel to acceleration.

Second, their third hypothesis was transfer – the bidirectional influence of one language on another. We addressed transfer in our 2010 paper. I’m not going to address that issue but perhaps will in a future post (if Madalena wishes me to invade her space again and if you all find some interest in bilingual phonology – I hope you will let me know). Instead I’ll focus on acceleration, idling (to continue the driving in traffic metaphor), and deceleration. So, here goes.

Because I like to accelerate, I’ll start with that one. The mythology that bilingual language development (phonological, in this case) is slower than monolingual development is simply that – mythology. There is evidence that phonological skills in bilinguals are accelerated (i.e. more advanced) compared to those of monolinguals (e.g. Lleó, Kuchenbrandt, Kehoe, and Trujillo, 2003). In that study, coda (i.e. syllable final) consonants were acquired in German-Spanish bilinguals before monolingual Spanish-speaking children. That said, there is also evidence that phonological skills in bilinguals are decelerated (i.e. less advanced) compared to those of monolinguals (e.g. Gildersleeve-Neumann, Kester, Davis, and Peña, 2008), in that consonant accuracy was lower in the bilingual children.

So, there is evidence of acceleration and deceleration in the phonological development of bilingual children. Bilingual children, however, spend a great deal of time idling – just like me on my afternoon drive from work to my house 17 miles away. That is, the phonological skills of bilinguals are mostly commensurate with those of monolingual children and thus are within the “normal” range of skills exhibited by monolingual children.

Evidence for this position (which we pitched as a variation of the acceleration hypothesis in our 2010 paper) comes from a variety of studies examining phonological skills in (mostly) 3-, 4-, and 5-year-old bilingual children. Such studies have looked at Spanish-English bilingual children (e.g. Fabiano-Smith & Goldstein, 2010; Goldstein, Fabiano, and Washington, 2005); Russian-English bilinguals (e.g. Gildersleeve-Neumann and Wright, 2010); and Italian-English speaking bilingual children (Holm and Dodd, 1999). It should be noted that in the case of the Italian-English speaking bilingual children in Holm and Dodd, the children had a speech problem indicating that even those bilingual children with speech problems can show similar skills to monolinguals with speech problems.

So what these results from these studies tell us is that we should expect to find evidence for acceleration, deceleration, and idling in the same kids. Such results shouldn’t be that surprising. After all, don’t we all experience each of those conditions every day in our commutes to and from work?
Brian A. Goldstein is Dean of the School of Nursing and Health Sciences and Professor of Speech-Language-Hearing Sciences at La Salle University, Philadelphia, PA, USA.

© Brian A. Goldstein 2011

Next post: Language percentages. Wednesday 9th March 2011.


  1. Thank you for such an interesting post! We are very interested in the subject and although our 8 month old daughter is not speaking yet, we're still wondering if she's falling behind already as far as her speech development goes, living in a trilingual home. I just hope the doctors here can adress a problem if there is one, and are able to distinguish a speech development delay if needed and not automatically "blame it" on our trilingual environment which is not common here.

  2. Diana--Thank you for your kind words! Unless your daughter ends up having a communication disorder, her language skills, over time, should not lag behind. There might be times when they don't exactly match those of a monolingual child, but that is to be expected. If, at some point, you do become concerned about her language development, you should consult a multilingual speech-language pathologist (speech therapist) who can do testing to know for sure. I'm glad you are raising a multilingual daughter; she's a lucky kid!



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