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Typical Developmental Errors in the Narratives of Bilingual Children - August 2009

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Typical Developmental Errors in the Narratives of Bilingual Children

By: Ellen Stubbe Kester and Alejandro Brice

The growing number of English language learners in public education poses an immense challenge for educators. According to the 2000 U.S. Census more than 47 million (one in five) people in the U.S. who are age 5 or older speak a language other than English at home. Approximately 10 percent of students enrolled in public schools in the United States have limited English proficiency (, 2004). The vast majority of these students are early sequential bilinguals who learn one language at home and are formally introduced to English when they enter school. Despite the enormity of this population, their language development is not well understood.

Identification of normal processes in bilingual development will improve practices with bilingual children. Understanding the specific types of errors that are produced by the interplay between languages will help reduce over- and under-referrals for special education services. A recent study explored the semantic, syntactic, and morphological errors in the narratives of Spanish-English bilingual children in order to identify normal processes in the development of early sequential bilinguals (Kester, 2007).

Many of the normal processes observed in bilingual development that differ from monolingual development are believed to be the result of the transfer of linguistic knowledge of one language to the other language (i.e., positive transference and negative interference). As a result of language interference, bilinguals often produce errors in one or both of their languages. The same errors are seen in many bilinguals who have typical language development, indicating that this is a normal learning process in the development of two languages.

Many of these errors are also hallmarks of language impairment in monolingual children. Thus, bilinguals are often misdiagnosed as language impaired when in fact the errors they are producing are typical given their linguistic input. At the other extreme, some bilinguals who in fact have language learning difficulties are overlooked because their difficulties are attributed to acquiring two languages together.

Kester’s research (2007) determined normal patterns in bilingual development, narrative language samples of Spanish-English bilingual children from pre-kindergarten through second grade were collected using wordless picture books (Mayer, 1969) and were transcribed using the Systematic Analysis of Language Samples (SALT) (Miller, 1986) tool. The children, who were determined to have typical language development by testing and parent report, were able to complete the task in both Spanish and English.

While general productivity measures, such as the length of the students’ utterances, the total number of utterances, the number of different words, and the total number of words, used in the narrative samples were similar across the two languages, students made two to three times the number of errors in their English samples as they did in their Spanish samples.

In the English samples, the total number of errors and each of the three main error categories (morphology, semantics, and syntax) peaked in first grade. Errors decreased slightly in second grade and more substantially in third grade.

The number of syntax errors was roughly the same in English and Spanish. Given the canonical SVO order in both languages, this is not surprising. The number of errors in morphology and semantics differ greatly across the two languages.

In the area of morphology, children made similar numbers of errors in English and Spanish on morphological markers such as plurals and adverbs, which are similarly marked in English and Spanish. Verbal morphology was a different story. The largest source of errors in both languages was in verb tense but the number of errors in English was far greater than in Spanish. This is despite the fact that the verbal morphology of Spanish is much more complex than in English. In English the children very frequently used the unmarked, or simplest form of verbs in present tense to describe past tense events. Again, the 1st graders did this far more frequently than PK, K, 2nd or 3rd graders, averaging 7-8 times per narrative sample.

Three patterns were noted in the area of semantics. Some of the errors were produced at similar rates across English and Spanish. One error type occurred more frequently in Spanish than English. Several of the error types occurred more frequently in English than in Spanish.

The errors that occurred at similar rates in English and Spanish are for semantic structures that are similar in English and Spanish. Children produced similar numbers of errors in which the meaning of their utterances did not match the story in the book. Additionally pronoun errors (“he” for “she”) were similar in the two languages and there is a one-to-one correspondence between English and Spanish subject pronouns. The use of general words such as “thing” or “cosa” for something more specific was similar in Spanish and English.

There were also a number of semantic errors that differed across the two languages. One of those occurred more frequently in Spanish and the others occurred more frequently in English. Article errors were higher in Spanish than in English. This finding is not surprising given that there are twice the number of articles in Spanish as a result of gender. For example the English definite article “the” is represented by both “el” and “la” in Spanish.

Errors that occurred more frequently in English than Spanish included incorrect use of words and prepositions. The incorrect use of words is obviously a result of limited vocabulary. Interestingly, rather than use general words, such as “thing” or “stuff,” children demonstrated the same types of errors that monolingual children exhibit when learning new words. They used underextensions, overextensions, and semantically related substitutions when they did not know the word. When producing the narrative in English they substituted incorrect English words far more often than they codeswitched, or substituted the Spanish word. The prepositions are also affected by limited vocabulary but also can be explained by differences between the two languages. One of the contrasting features of English and Spanish is that Spanish is a “verb-framed” language and English is a “satellite-framed” language. In other words, much of the information that is presented in “satellites,” or prepositions, in English is presented in the verb in Spanish. For example, in Spanish the verbs “subir” and “bajar” indicate both the action and direction of “going up” and “going down” or “getting on (the bus)” and “getting off (the bus).” Thus, prepositions occur more frequently in English than in Spanish and there is not a one-to-one correspondence between English and Spanish prepositions.

In summary, typically developing children who are learning English as their second language make more errors in their English narratives than in their Spanish narratives. When aspects of the languages are similar, the number of errors they make in each language is similar (e.g. the frequency of syntax errors was similar in English and Spanish). When aspects of the languages differ, the number of errors in English is much higher than in Spanish. This is especially apparent for children in first grade, who demonstrated a much higher frequency of errors than children in the other grades. By the time children are in third grade, the frequency of their errors is similar in both languages. This is consistent with the literature that indicates that children are able to use their second language well in academic settings after approximately five years of exposure.

  • (2004). English Language Learners. Accessed on the web on 10/29/04 at
  • Kester, E. S., (2007). Cross-linguistic influences in Spanish-English Bilinguals. Presentation to the National Academy of Education Annual Meeting, October, 19, 2007.
  • Mayer, M. (1969). Frog Where are You? New York: Pied Piper.
  • Miller, J. & Chapman, R. (1986). SALT: Systematic Analysis of Language Transcripts.

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

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: August 2009 Newsletter SLP Bilingualism Article