Acquisition of Fricatives in Icelandic and French

I point out in this blog a recent paper by Bernhardt and colleagues describing fricative production by Icelandic preschoolers with “protracted phonological development”. Icelandic-speaking children with speech problems produced /f,s,θ/ with about 70% accuracy by four years of age. The English-speaking children with speech problems achieved less than 15% accuracy on the single word naming task (those of us who work with those children are not surprised!). Error patterns were different as well (for example, the Icelandic children substituted [t] for /f/ whereas the English children substituted [p] for /f/). The study is a nice reminder of the need for language specific articulation tests for children with intelligibility problems whose first language is not the majority language. There are no universal developmental patterns. Therefore we can be grateful to Sharynne McLeod and the International Working Group on Multilingual Children’s Speech for their great site.

A point of theory in the paper was the failure to support the hypothesis of “higher overall fricative accuracy for English, because English has more fricative types.” This hypothesis was put forward because Edwards, Beckman and Munson concluded that “the more words containing a sound that a child has learned to say, the more practiced the child becomes at recognizing and reproducing the sound abstracted away from the phonological contexts of a few specific words.” One example given is the case of /ð/ in English. I was surprised that an alternative hypothesis, considering the prosodic structure of Icelandic, was not tested. Perhaps the authors didn’t want to attempt this because it is so hard to understand the prosodic structure of Icelandic! I certainly will not try to do this. However I point out that French and Icelandic are characterized by earlier acquisition of fricatives compared to English:

Acq of Fric

Françoise and I have previously pointed out that the prosody of French helps children learn the segments. Several studies now confirm that French-speaking children learn consonants early: they have a complete consonant repertoire at an early age and they master accurate production of the consonants at an early age (compared to English). Furthermore, French-speaking children with speech problems produce more syllable structure and fewer segmental errors (compared to English-speaking children with speech problems). How does the prosody of French explain these findings? French is a syllable timed language with a tendency toward long words made of several syllables having equal stress. The syllables tend to have a simple CV structure even though complex onsets and codas are allowed. The difference between the two languages can be observed in the ratio of consonants to vowels, being 1.6 in French and 2.1 in English.

Recall that when children first learn to speak, they learn to produce “whole words” and not strings of individual segments; these first whole words act as templates for the production of more words. These initial templates are often made up of reduplicated or partially reduplicated syllables. Possibly, if the initial word shape template is easy to learn or construct, more processing power is left over to acquire the segments inside the syllables. Furthermore, simple stressed syllables in French may increase the perceptual salience of those segments. Vihman provides wonderful examples of this process in her very excellent paper on templatic phonology. The French child, Gael, saying words like ‘accroché’ [χʁoʃe] at age 21 months is rather fun to see!

Possibly the same process occurs in Icelandic which has a very particular prosody that may also increase the perceptual salience of postvocalic consonants, fricatives in particular. I will not attempt an explanation, the phonology of Icelandic being quite beyond me, but any explanation for the early acquisition of these phonemes must take the prosodic (word shape) characteristics of early child input into account.

In the meantime some more general points strike me. It is impossible for us as speech-language pathologists or academics to understand the process of speech development without data and it is disheartening how little data there is on these languages. Basic information such as the types and tokens of fricatives that are presented to children in the input across languages is difficult to find. We need to know much more about the prosody of all these languages but prosody receives scandalously little attention compared to, for example, consonants.

We also need to know more about the processes by which children select and construct their early word templates. This requires painstaking small sample detailed longitudinal work and large, large sample laboratory work using creative paradigms, some probably not invented yet. However, all our work is perilously underpowered and underfunded.

Finally we need huge diversity in academia – lots and lots of movement of students across the world, bringing new techniques to new languages. Unfortunately in the past few days, in the aftermath of Brexit, I have encountered many depressing conversations on the internet about the control of borders. Even in the domain of “highly qualified personnel”, some graduates are deemed more worthy than others and we all know where the humanities fall on the ranking! I prefer not to counter this sort of thinking with purely utilitarian arguments, but clearly it is short sighted given the importance of communication and communication disorders. On a more positive note I close by congratulating the excellence of child phonology projects sustained on a wing and a prayer such as the Cross-linguistic Child Phonology Project led by Bernhardt and colleagues and also the Paidologos project led by Edwards and colleagues.



Bernhardt, B. M., Másdóttir, T., Stemberger, J. P., Leonhardt, L., & Hansson, G. Ó. (2015). Fricative acquisition in English- and Icelandic-speaking preschoolers with protracted phonological development. Clinical Linguistics & Phonetics, 29(8-10), 642-665. doi:10.3109/02699206.2015.1036463

Brosseau-Lapré, F., & Rvachew, S. (2014). Cross-linguistic comparison of speech errors produced by English- and French-speaking preschool age children witih developmental phonological disorders. International Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 16(2), 98-108.

Edwards, J., Beckman, M. E., & Munson, B. (2015). Frequency effects in phonological acquisition. Journal of Child Language, 42(02), 306-311. doi:doi:10.1017/S0305000914000634

MacLeod, A. A. N., Sutton, A., Trudeau, N., & Thordardottir, E. (2011). The acquisition of consonants in Québec French: A cross-sectional study of preschool aged children. International Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 13, 93-109.

Rvachew, S., Marquis, A., Brosseau-Lapré, F., Paul, M., Royle, P., & Gonnerman, L. M. (2013). Speech articulation performance of francophone children in the early school years: Norming of the Test de Dépistage Francophone de Phonologie. Clinical Linguistics & Phonetics, 27(12), 950-968. doi:doi:10.3109/02699206.2013.830149