Evaluating speech-sound errors of second-language learners might seem extremely difficult. Perhaps their first language includes sounds not used in English. And we’re not always familiar with the other language. Luckily, if we know—or can determine—what sounds exist in both languages and understand why these errors occur, we can answer this one important question:
If a child experiences difficulty producing a sound, is it a true error or is it due to influence from his first language?
Let’s begin with a look at the following Venn diagram and then take a quick stroll through some research. Finally, I’ll share two examples from other languages.
Which sounds should I use to write goals?
Find and list the consonants and vowels common to both English and the student’s first language along with those unique to each language. You can use this information to help determine if a student needs your services. A child making errors only on those sounds unique to English probably doesn’t need treatment. If you notice errors on those shared sounds as well as on sounds unique to his or her native language, you should recommend speech-language services. Also take into account the normal developmental sequence of the sounds, however. Sounds unique to one language or the other usually tend to occur later.
Why do second-language learners make sound errors in English?
If two languages share a sound, you expect a second-language learner to easily produce the shared sounds in their second language as well. For example, English and Spanish both have /b/ so the word “baby (bebe)” shouldn’t present an issue.
For a sound not shared by both languages, you would expect the second-language speaker to delete, distort or replace the sound when speaking in English. Let’s use Spanish again and look at a few examples:
|Deletion: Don’t becomes Don||REASON: No final /t/ and no final clusters in Spanish
|Distortion: Spaghetti becomes Espaghetti
|REASON: No initial /s/ cluster in Spanish|
|Replacement: This becomes Dis
|REASON: No /th/ in Spanish so the brain chooses the most similar sound from the first language.|
Let’s look at some common languages to bring the point home. I took these examples from the book “Difference or Disorder? Understanding Speech and Language Patterns in Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students.”
Mandarin & English Consonant Phonemes
Venn Diagrams present this information so nicely. With a Mandarin speaker, write goals related to voicing errors cautiously, because Mandarin doesn’t include voiced stop consonants. Many of our hard, Germanic fricatives also don’t exist in Mandarin.
Russian & English consonant phonemes
Unlike Mandarin, Russian contains most of the English consonants, with some slight variations. For example, sounds marked with * are dentalized. I wouldn’t write a phonological goal for this error. Nor would I write goals for anything listed only on the English half of the diagram.
In summary, what do you need to know when evaluating English-language learners?
They shouldn’t experience difficulty saying shared sounds.
Find information on the sounds found in the second language and identify those sounds shared by English. Test these sounds at the sound, word and phrase level and in multiple places in the word. Can this work with all languages? I believe so.
Scott Prath, MA, CCC-SLP, is vice president of Bilinguistics in Austin, Texas, and serves a diverse caseload in schools and early childhood settings. He has written and co-written several books and apps, and is a lead writer for The Speech Therapy Blog. firstname.lastname@example.org