As the number of bilingual students in the U.S. grows, we greatly benefit from a basic understanding of typical patterns of second-language acquirement and errors. I say greatly because:
- We can assess more accurately when we understand which patterns in bilingual development are typical, even in terms of errors, versus those that might indicate a language impairment.
- We can treat students more successfully by focusing on goals related to their language disorder rather than those geared toward “correcting” second-language patterns.
Let’s take a look at four areas of language where ESL students commonly make errors.
A common area of perceived errors for Spanish-speakers acquiring English as a second language is in the use of prepositions. For example, the English prepositions “in” and “on” both translate into Spanish as the preposition “en.” Thus, a Spanish-speaker acquiring English might mix up the use of the corresponding English prepositions. Additionally, concepts represented by prepositions in English often get translated into Spanish with verbs.
Examples of commonly mistranslated prepositions in Spanish-influenced English:
- “En” in Spanish translates to both “in” and “on” in English. So ESL students might say, “Put the food in the plate.” Or: “Put the soup on the bowl.”
- “Pensar en” or “Pensar de” translates as “to think about,” which ESL students might say as “I think on him every day.”
- “Enojarse con/de” should translate to: “Get mad at,” and might be said as: “Get mad with/of.”
- “Decidir de” in English is “To decide on,” but might be mistranslated into: “Did you decide of what you want?”
- “Casarse con” should be said as: “To marry or be married to,” but often gets said as: “Is he married with her?”
- “Enamorarse de” should translate as: “To be in love with,” but might be said as: “Is he in love of her?”
- “Consistir en” in correct English is: “To consist of,” but an ESL student might say: “What does your plan consist in?”
- “Buscar” in Spanish includes the preposition and means “To look for,” so a bilingual student might omit a preposition with the English equivalent verb and say: “I look my toy.”
- “Subir” also includes a preposition in the meaning: “To go up, to get on,” so can get mistranslated as: “I go the stairs.”
Multipurpose verbs also present problematic semantics for English-language learners. Verbs such as “do, “make,” “put” and “take” are highly subject to transfer of meaning. An example of a multipurpose verb in English is “to put.” One can “put a book on a shelf,” “put their clothes on,” “be put out with someone” or “put up money for a cause,” among other uses. The phrases listed below include multipurpose verbs commonly misused by children learning English:
- Did you take a decision?
- Do you want to put an appointment?
- Do you have hunger?
- I have 6 years.
Grammar and syntax
Children who know Spanish and are in the process of learning English will likely follow rules of syntax and grammar using cues from Spanish and translate those directly into English until they gain enough English exposure or instruction to learn the cues in English.
- Word order in Spanish is flexible, but in English prevailing word order consists of subject-verb-object. So an ESL student might say “Juan me hit” instead of “Juan hit me.”
- In Spanish, the noun normally precedes the adjective. “She is a girl very nice” might be a common replacement for “She is a very nice girl.”
- Spanish-speakers may directly translate questions and thereby omit auxiliary verbs. “Where you went?” might replace, “Where did you go?” Or, “Why you no share?” instead of “Why didn’t you share?”
- Pronouns also might get dropped, because this information is included in the Spanish verb. “Sally went to the store. Bought food.” (“She” gets omitted.)
- English uses single negatives, but double negatives are common in Spanish, so a native Spanish-speaker learning English commonly says, “I no want nothing” instead of “I don’t want anything.”
- Plurals get noted just once in English, but get doubly indicated in Spanish. So, a student says “the bigs trees” for “the big trees.”
Vocabulary and semantics
One of the most obvious types of translation mistakes is substituting Spanish words for English words. For example, an English-language learner might say “I want el libro” when she doesn’t know the English word for “book.” This is referred to as code-switching, and though it is often used by adult bilinguals, they use it differently. Many adults code-switch to add emphasis to what they are saying. They also generally code-switch only when they know their audience will understand it. Children learning English as a second language may code-switch when it is the only way they know to express an idea.
Due to the different contexts in which they learn each language, bilingual children typically learn different words in each language. For example, a child whose home language is Spanish may know more vocabulary based on food items and daily routine, like “toothbrush.” The same child in an English-speaking classroom might learn vocabulary in English based on academic concepts and school-related words such as “recess.” Research on bilingual children’s expressive vocabulary shows an approximate overlap of only 30 percent of words with the same meaning. This is a normal process in the acquisition of a second language and highlights the importance of assessing children’s complete repertoire of vocabulary in both languages.
Read more on diagnosing and treating children learning English as a second language in our November 2014 issue of “The ASHA Leader:”
Scott Prath, MA, CCC-SLP, is the vice president of Bilinguistics in Austin, Texas. He serves a diverse caseload in the schools and early childhood settings. He also writes books, develops applications for mobile devices, and posts for The Speech Therapy Blog. firstname.lastname@example.org