Contact Us

Speech Assessment of Spanish-English Bilinguals - November 2009

< Back to Previous Page

Speech Assessment of Spanish-English Bilinguals

By: Ellen Kester, Ph.D., CCC-SLP and Alejandro Brice, Ph.D., CCC-SLP

With the implementation of Responsiveness to Intervention (RTI) in the schools, many speech-language pathologists are searching for tools to share with the teachers in their schools to help identify which students are presenting with speech errors that can be attributed to the influence from their first language. It is important to consider to the similarities and differences in the sound systems of each language in order to determine whether errors result from first-language influence or whether the errors are atypical.

In the charts below, we present two Venn diagrams. One presents the consonant sounds of English and Spanish and the other presents the vowel sounds. The sounds in the center of the Venn diagram are common to the two languages and while the sounds on the left and right sides are unique to one language or the other. From a clinical perspective, if a child who is a native Spanish speaker correctly produces the sounds unique to Spanish and those shared between the languages but makes errors on sounds that are unique to English, it is likely that this pattern results from minimal experience with the phonology of the second language and may result in phonetic interference.

[Image: Phoneme Inventory.jpg]

[Image: Vowel Inventory.jpg]

The vowel diagram shows that there are many more vowels in English than there are in Spanish. All of the Spanish vowels exist in English but there are seven or eight vowels in English (depending on your dialect) that do not exist in Spanish. Children who are learning English often substitute the Spanish vowel that is closest to the target English vowel because that is what is in their repertoire. The following chart can help to identify which vowel might be substituted.

[Image: Vowel Chart.jpg]

In addition to simply considering which sounds exist in each language, it is important to consider the frequency of occurrence of patterns and the phonotactic constraints of each language. Three of those differences are listed in the slide below.

[Image: Syllable structure.jpg]

The structure of Spanish includes more consonant-vowel combinations than English, which has more consonant clusters. As a result, consonant clusters appear to be more difficult and occur later in development for Spanish speakers, and many of the combinations of clusters that occur in English but not in Spanish are difficult for native Spanish speakers to produce as they acquire English. An example is S-clusters at the word initial position. Spanish does not allow S-clusters in word-initial position. S-clusters are often preceded by [e] in Spanish (e.g. “escuela”). A common pattern noted in Spanish-influenced English is the production of [e] before S-clusters, such as “eschool” for “school.” It is critical to understand these patterns when analyzing the English speech patterns of native Spanish speakers in order to determine whether the productions result from an influence from the native language.

Another difference between Spanish and English is the sounds that are allowable in word-final position in English and Spanish. Most Spanish words end in vowels, whereas most English words end in consonants. Omission of final consonants in Spanish speakers who are acquiring English is common and can be attributed to differences in the structure of the two languages. There are five consonants that occur in word-final position in Spanish. Those are [l], [n], [d], [s], and [r]. In addition, Spanish does not contain consonant clusters at the end of the word. Other sounds might be difficult to produce at the ends of words for those who are acquiring English.

This Month's Featured Authors:
Ellen Kester, Ph.D., CCC-SLP Bilinguistics, Inc.
Alejandro Brice, Ph.D., CCC-SLP University of South Florida St. Petersburg

Many thanks to Dr. Ellen Kester for providing this article for this months newsletter

Dr. Ellen Kester is a Founder and President of Bilinquistics, Inc. She earned her Ph.D. in Communication Sciences and Disorders from The University of Texas at Austin. She earned her Master's degree in Speech-Language Pathology and her Bachelor's degree in Spanish at The University of Texas at Austin. She has provided bilingual Spanish/English speech-language services in schools, hospitals, and early intervention settings. Her research focus is on the acquisition of semantic language skills in bilingual children, with emphasis on assessment practices for the bilingual population. She has performed workshops and training seminars, and has presented at conferences both nationally and internationally. Dr. Kester teaches courses in language development, assessment and intervention of language disorders, early childhood intervention, and measurement at The University of Texas at Austin. She can be reached at

Dr. Alejandro E. Brice is an Associate Professor at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg in Secondary/ESOL Education. His research has focused on issues of transference or interference between two languages in the areas of phonetics, phonology, semantics, and pragmatics related to speech-language pathology. In addition, his clinical expertise relates to the appropriate assessment and treatment of Spanish-English speaking students and clients.

Tags: November 2009 Newsletter SLP Bilingualism Article