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

Top down or bottom up target selection with toddlers?

A new paper on the consonant repertoires of toddlers confirms the close relationship between early speech and language development: Sotto, C. D., Redle, E., Bandaranayake, D., Neils-Strunjas, J., & Creaghead, N. A. (2014). Fricatives at 18 months as a measure for predicting vocabulary and grammar at 24 and 30 months. Journal of Communication Disorders, 49, 1-12. Specifically these authors examined the relationship between consonant repertoires at 18 months and performance on the MacArthur-Bates Communicative Development Inventories: Words & Sentences (MBCDI: WS) at 18, 24 and 30 months. Although inventory size was not significantly correlated with vocabulary size and use of grammatical markers at 24 and 30 months, the presence of fricatives in the inventory at 18 months was associated with higher mean scores on the 24 and 30 month language tests in comparison to language test performance for toddlers who did not produce fricatives at the earlier age. The discussion nicely covers the many intervening variables that might account for this relationship. (Clarification added in response to reader questions: the children in the study were normally developing).

I was pleasantly surprised to find that all the raw data is presented in the paper so that the consonant repertoires for each of the 37 toddlers at 18 months could be examined directly. This allowed me to check whether these repertoires conformed to the expectations of the implicational hierarchy as described by Dinnsen et al in an older paper (the hierarchy is derived from earlier work by Jacobson I believe): Dinnsen, D. A., Chin, S. B., Elbert, M., & Powell, T. W. (1990). Some constraints on functionally disordered phonologies: Phonetic inventories and phonotactics. Journal of Speech and Hearing Research, 33(1), 28-37. The hierarchy takes a structural approach assigning the child to different levels on the basis of the phonetic feature “contrasts” that are present in the phonetic repertoire as shown in the table below, keeping in mind that the child does not have to use the phones contrastively; there need be only representatives of the opposing feature classes present in the repertoire. The hierarchy is said to be implicational because if a child produces the feature attributed to one level of the hierarchy it is theoretically impossible for the feature contrasts at any lower level to not be present. Therefore the presence of voiced and voiceless phones (Level B) implies the presence of labial and coronal place as well as obstruent, glide and nasal manner features (Level A). I examined each of the repertoires in the Sotto et al paper and determined the highest level represented for each child and noted any violations of the expectation of the implicational hierarchy. The results are shown in the table below.

Implicational Hierarchy

I find it to be very interesting that one third of the toddlers in this study do not meet the assumptions of the implicational hierarchy. For example if we consider the children who produced a Level C phonetic repertoire, in other words, the 24 22/37 toddlers who produced fricatives and or affricates, we find that 6 of these did so despite lacking glides (4 children) or nasals (2 children) in the inventory. In Dinnsen et al, 40 preschoolers with speech sound disorders were described and the 1 child that failed to meet the implicational assumptions of the hierarchy was assumed to have a “deviant” phonology. However, (as I have suggested for Dodd’s so-called “deviant” categories as well), deviant behaviors have a funny way of showing up in very early language development.

What are the implications of these data and my re-analysis for speech and language therapy? To be honest I am not sure. One thing that I am quite sure of is that the findings do not support the “complexity” approach to target selection – the idea proposed in Dinnsen et al is that treating Level E phone contrasts will cause the lower level contrasts to appear is if by magic because of the internally specified implicational relationship between the contrasts as if they were all linked together like Christmas tree lights. I have shown that this approach does not in fact work (see Rvachew & Bernhard, 2010). This is not to say that one should take the opposite approach by structuring your treatment approach to introduce features in the opposite direction, working your way up the levels from A to B (and contrary to some myths in circulation I have never recommended this). I think that the important thing to keep in mind is that children at this stage of phonological development are developing their phonology and their lexicons so as to enhance lexical contrast  rather than phonological contrasts and therefore one needs to take a language based core vocabulary approach in any case.

The problem that I have is that I have never been comfortable with the idea of picking any words that are “functional” and teaching them even if the child hasn’t a hope of approximating the word (those poor children with speech problems named Clarence are fortunately few!). I prefer to take a systematic approach introducing new phones to maximize the probability of success and the implicational hierarchy shown above is maybe not a bad start if you have a child with no consonant repertoire at all (this does happen sometimes). Another possibility is Daniel Ling’s approach (teach all manner classes at once at one place of articulation and then move to the next place, leaving voice contrasts to the end). On the other hand, given the broad variety of strategies evidenced by the children in the Sotto et al study maybe the notion of taking any words that are important in the child’s environment is both ecologically and theoretically defensible. I will come back with some summaries of Dodd’s work on the core vocabulary approach another time but I think that this is a problem worthy of more rigorous and empirical study with larger samples!