September 25, 2007 Features

A Tale of Two Languages

Since implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act, identification of children in need of reading remediation has significantly increased. Many of these students come from diverse backgrounds. In Florida, for example, 23.1% of school-age children come from families in which English is not spoken, including many Hispanic families who speak Spanish. According to 2000 Census data, 5.24% of all Spanish-speaking students in Florida did not speak English well enough to be considered fluent; this number increased by 52,591 from 1990 to 2000 and will continue to increase.

Nationally, only 13% of Hispanic students performed at the expected fourth-grade level, indicating the potential for reading failure. Given that strong reading skills are a prerequisite for school success, Hispanic students may be at risk for over-identification to speech-language and special education programs and eventual school drop-out.

The Hispanic population in the United States, which increased from 32 million in 1999 to 38.8 million in 2003, tends to be younger than the overall non-Hispanic U.S. population. Due to this increase in population, it is likely that speech-language pathologists may be asked to evaluate children who speak Spanish in the home.


It is important to be able to differentiate differences from disorders. In order to identify disorders, SLPs must first know what is typical. Some consonants occur in Spanish that do not occur in English and vice versa. For example, Spanish contains the tap /r/ and the trill /R/. The tap is less frequent. A shortened trill is the most frequent. An elongated trill is also found. Spanish contains certain voiced fricative phonemes that are allophones of their respective voiced stop consonants, e.g., /b, ß/. Spanish vowels and consonants are simpler than those found in English. Spanish includes 19 consonants and two semivowels (glides), while English includes 24 consonants and two semivowels. Depending upon the Spanish dialect, most phoneticians agree that Spanish consists of 42 phonemes, while English consists of 45 (Hammond, 1989; Navarro, 1968).

Spanish does not contain the following sounds in the final position of words: /p, b, f, v, tƒ, m/ and the following English sounds do not occur in most dialects of Spanish / Ө, ð, v, z, ∫, з, dз /. Therefore, these English sounds may cause Spanish-speakers to substitute an approximating Spanish sound, resulting in phonetic interference. Spanish words tend to end with /r, s, d, n, l/ and vowels. Spanish includes few consonant clusters, and none begins with /s/. Therefore, when a Spanish-speaking student attempts the word "school," it becomes "eschool."

Phonological and Phonemic Awareness

Rhyming among Spanish speakers seems to develop prior to literacy acquisition in phonological and phonemic awareness. However, conscious manipulation of syllables appears to be difficult for non-readers. Spanish-speaking students develop sensitivity to a) syllables, b) onset, c) rhymes, and finally, d) individual phonemes.

Research in the area of literacy among Spanish- speaking populations reveals that: 

  • A large segment of Hispanic students with limited English skills are at risk for educational failure 
  • Spanish rhyming develops prior to literacy development (Adrian, Alegria & Morais, 1995) 
  • Spanish-speaking children can identify syllables prior to identifying phonemes (Deton, Hashbrouck, Weaver & Riccio, 2000) 
  • Harder phonemic awareness tasks include phoneme deletion, phoneme reversal, and final phoneme identification (Adrian, Alegria & Morais, 1995; Brice, 2004) 
  • Continuants (/m/, /s/) are easier to identify than stops; consonant-vowels are easier than consonant-consonant blends (Gonzalez & Garcia, 1995) 
  • Vocabulary growth and development is important for reading comprehension (Carlisle, Beeman, Davis & Spharim, 1999) 
  • Informal definitions can transfer from Spanish to English, enhancing vocabulary acquisition (Carlisle, Beeman, Davis & Spharim, 1999; Proctor, Carlo, August & Snow, 2005) 
  • Native-language and English vocabulary contribute both to formal and informal definitions 
  • Native-language and English phonemic awareness skills contribute to English reading comprehension (Carlisle, Beeman, Davis & Spharim, 1999).

Current research supports the notion that identifying initial sounds, final sounds, and rhyme seem to relate to reading fluency in Spanish, and that these skills transfer to reading fluency in English. Hence, some phonological and phonemic awareness tasks can transfer between Spanish and English, indicating that knowledge of Spanish is useful in acquiring English reading skills.

Second-Language Issues

Numerous studies support the use of the native language as a bridge to acquiring English. Brice and Roseberry-McKibbin (2001) stated, "The current literature supports the notion that the native or home language is the best medium for working with children and adds to the child's ability to communicate in the second language (i.e., English)."

Thomas & Collier (2002) found in their longitudinal study of four U.S. states—with 210,054 student records analyzed—that students who received five to six years of bilingual instruction reached the 50th normal curve equivalent (NCE) in their second language (L2, English) by their fifth or sixth year in U.S. schools. The NCE is a standard score with a mean of 50 and a standard deviation of 21.06.

The NCE is useful in comparing test scores across subjects like math and reading. Students in the Thomas & Collier study were able to maintain their level of performance in their first language (L1). At a minimum, Thomas & Collier (2002) suggested that "students who are raised in a bilingual environment need at least four years of schooling in L1 and four years of schooling in L2 to achieve on grade level in either of the two languages." Bilingual research has empirically demonstrated that first and second languages can have a positive (transference) or negative (interference) influence upon each other. However, questions still remain as to what language features create interference between Spanish and English and what language features transfer easily.

Semantics as a Bridge

Numerous studies indicate that words common in both languages, such as doublets or translation equivalents (Tes), act as bridges showing positive transference between the dominant and less dominant languages—Spanish and English—in young children (Pearson et al. 1997). Young bilingual children seem able to understand and use two languages independently of each other as early as 18 months of age. In addition, Tes appear to be normal occurrences in the young bilingual child's vocabulary.

Brice & Wertheim (2004-2005) showed that children with a strong preference for one language tended to show fewer occurrences of Tes, while children who displayed more of a balance between the two languages showed a higher occurrence of Tes. It seemed that as children gained higher proficiency in the second language, they were more apt to use Tes. Hence, transference at the word level seemed to increase with L2 proficiency.

It is normal for children to learn two languages simultaneously. Young children do not seem to show any signs of confusion in learning both. This may be true for children with varying types of language disorders. For example, Kay-Raining Bird, Trudeau, Thordardottir, Sutton, & Thorpe (2005) found that children with Down syndrome who were raised bilingually showed profiles similar to English monolingual-speaking children with Down syndrome. Exposing young children with special needs to two languages does not appear to be detrimental and may, in fact, be beneficial.

Morphology and Syntax

Studies showing an overall or general acquisition of English morphology by Spanish-speaking children have been sparse. Bland-Stewart & Fitzgerald (2001) documented the order of acquisition for Brown's 14 grammatical English morphemes. The children in this study (2.6–5 years old) were of Central or South American Spanish origin.

It should be noted that a child's Spanish dialect may affect the rate and ease of acquiring English morphology. For example, in Caribbean dialects (Cuban Spanish or Puerto Rican Spanish) a child may delete weak consonants in the final position of words and "mas" becomes "ma." When the child acquires English, he or she may not pronounce final /s/ sounds that indicate plural or possessive in English. The word "cats" becomes "cat." In addition, Spanish plurality tends to be marked in multiple locations, including articles, noun conjugations, adverbs, and/or adjectives. Therefore, marking of one /s/ sound may not seem as vital to the Spanish speaker. Bland-Stewart &
Fitzgerald (2001) found that: 

  • Present progressive "ing" was acquired by the Spanish-speaking children meeting American English age and MLU benchmarks. 
  • Plurals did not meet the American English normative standards; however, plurals were found to be an emergent skill. 
  • Use of the preposition "in" did not meet the American English standards. 
  • Preposition "on" did not meet the American English normative standards. The Spanish "en" (on) appears to be a later-emerging morpheme in Spanish, perhaps due to extended use of contextual cues in that language. Prepositions are not as clearly marked in Spanish as in English. 
  • Possessive "s" did not meet the American English normative standards. Spanish speakers denote possession with "de;" therefore, possible Spanish interference may have delayed acquisition of the English possessive. 
  • Regular past tense "ed" did not meet the American English normative standards. Spanish phonology may have had an interfering influence as final stops may be aspirated or deleted. However, the regular past tense was found to be an emergent skill. 
  • Irregular past tense did not meet the American English normative standards. It was also found to be an emergent skill. The irregular Spanish past tense is typically acquired at a later age. 
  • The regular third-person singular did not meet the American English normative standards. However, this morphological feature is not singled out in Spanish as much as in English (i.e., a different ending for first vs. third person). For example, Spanish marks changes in person and number in the verb conjugation (Yo hablo, tu hablas, el/ella habla, nosotros hablamos, usted habla, ellos/ellas hablan). 
  • Articles "a" and "the" did not meet the American normative standard; however, this morpheme was noted to be emerging. Please note that Spanish articles "el, la, los, las" denote number and gender. In addition, the masculine pronoun "el," feminine article "la," and direct object "la" or "lo" make article acquisition in Spanish more complex. Despite the complexities, Spanish articles are typically acquired earlier than English pronouns, perhaps due to their high frequency of use in spoken Spanish. 
  • Contractible and auxiliary "to be" did not meet the American English normative standards. The Spanish copula and auxiliary morphemes are "ser" and "estar." Spanish speakers also use "tener" ("to have") to denote state of being (e.g., "yo tengo sed"—"I have thirst"). The difference and complexity of the Spanish and English copula/auxiliary verbs may have caused some language interference difficulties. 
  • Irregular third-person singular did not meet the American English normative standards. Irregular Spanish verbs tend to maintain their irregularity throughout all persons and number. Hence, some language interference difficulties also may have occurred. 
  • Uncontractible copula and auxiliary "to be" did not meet the American English normative standards. Spanish does not contain uncontractible forms. Contractions do exist in Spanish (e.g., "de + el" = "del"). However, some language interference difficulties again may have occurred.

Pragmatic Difficulties

Research into bilingual students and their social use of language has been extremely limited. Brice et al. (1996) indicated that bilingual students' pragmatic difficulties placed them at risk for failing to succeed in cooperative learning situations in the classroom.

SLPs can work with teachers, demonstrating how to model and instruct the interaction behaviors of making requests and actively listening. The latter may increase listening comprehension and follow-through on teacher classroom requests. SLPs and teachers can focus on the grammatical aspects of language including syntax, semantics, and morphology in improving students' pragmatic skills.

According to Shinn, Goldberg, Kimelman, & Messick (2002), approximately 416 master's and doctoral ASHA members were fluent in another language in 1999-2000. As of 2003, ASHA listed 118,361 certified members, indicating that only about 0.35% of the membership speaks another language in addition to English.

As school-based SLPs continue to work with bilingual populations, more information about bilingual instructional methods is needed. The number of bilingual SLPs in the United States is inadequate to serve the growing bilingual school population. It is imperative that we have more fully prepared monolingual SLPs who are able to serve Spanish-speaking students with disabilities. It is also anticipated that all SLPs will approach the task of serving their bilingual case-loads in an informed manner to best serve the communication and educational needs of their students.  

Alejandro E. Brice, an associate professor at Valdosta State University, has frequently written and presented on assessment and treatment of school-age students from multicultural backgrounds. Contact him at  

Roanne G. Brice, is the assistant chair in the Department of Child, Family, and Community Sciences at the University of Central Florida. Her research has focused on language and literacy skills in bilingual children and students with disabilities. She has also been a school SLP and a classroom teacher. Contact her at

cite as: Brice, A. E.  & Brice, R. G. (2007, September 25). A Tale of Two Languages. The ASHA Leader.

Strategies for Students With Learning Disabilities

Suggestions for school and classroom remediation for students with language-learning disabilities and various other challenges include:

  • Bilingual and English language-learner (ELL) students need reasons to communicate; interaction and opportunities to speak with proficient English-speakers (peers, teachers, or community members); interaction, support, and feedback from others; and close and continued interaction with others lasting three or four years. 
  • The SLP can encourage ELL students to ask questions. Students can seek clarification and ask for repetitions. The SLP can reinforce these behaviors. 
  • SLPs can rely less on modeling as a form of correction and instead provide direct instruction. Bilingual students in initial learning stages can be allowed to make mistakes. 
  • Classroom teachers can employ more pauses and wait time for responses to allow for the students to monitor and reflect on their language use.
  • ELL students need increased student-teacher interactions to encourage language that is regulatory (commands), heuristic (asking questions), informational (giving information), and instrumental (meeting one’s needs).
  • Hispanic students need opportunities to share information with other students and to express, initiate, and maintain conversations. 
  • Practicing an activity prepares the Hispanic student to later talk about it. 
  • SLPs and teachers can ask open-ended clarification questions to encourage heuristic language from the student. 
  • The use of grammar drills and direct instruction, i.e., teaching specific skills such as note-taking, is beneficial for students with language disorders. A naturalistic approach can be used to reinforce learned skills. 
  • Hispanic students can benefit from peer grouping with other students of similar ability levels to practice classroom interaction skills. 
  • Hispanic students can practice in formalized, structured speaking situations to encourage classroom discourse skills. 


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