Crosslinguistic Phonological Development: An International Collaboration An international study is investigating phonological development in 12 languages: Romance (Canadian French, Granada, Mexican and Chilean Spanish, and European Portuguese); Germanic (German, English, Swedish, and Icelandic); Semitic (Kuwaiti Arabic); Asian (Japanese, Mandarin); South Slavic (Bulgarian, Slovene). Additional phonological assessment materials have been created for Anishinaabemowin (Algonquian, Canada), Brazilian Portuguese, ... Article
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Article  |   May 15, 2017
Crosslinguistic Phonological Development: An International Collaboration
Author Affiliations & Notes
  • Barbara May Bernhardt
    School of Audiology and Speech Sciences, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
  • Joseph Paul Stemberger
    Department of Linguistics, University of British Columbia, Canada, Vancouver, British Columbia
  • Daniel Bérubé
    School of Rehabilitation Sciences (Speech-Language Pathology), University of Ottawa, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
  • Disclosures
    Disclosures ×
  • Financial: Barbara May Bernhardt has no relevant financial interests related to the content of this article. Joseph Paul Stemberger has no relevant financial interests related to the content of this article. Daniel Bérubé has no relevant financial interests related to the content of this article.
    Financial: Barbara May Bernhardt has no relevant financial interests related to the content of this article. Joseph Paul Stemberger has no relevant financial interests related to the content of this article. Daniel Bérubé has no relevant financial interests related to the content of this article.×
  • Nonfinancial: Barbara May Bernhardt has no relevant nonfinancial interests related to the content of this article. Joseph Paul Stemberger has no relevant nonfinancial interests related to the content of this article. Daniel Bérubé has no relevant nonfinancial interests related to the content of this article.
    Nonfinancial: Barbara May Bernhardt has no relevant nonfinancial interests related to the content of this article. Joseph Paul Stemberger has no relevant nonfinancial interests related to the content of this article. Daniel Bérubé has no relevant nonfinancial interests related to the content of this article.×
Article Information
Cultural & Linguistic Diversity / Speech, Voice & Prosody / Part 1
Article   |   May 15, 2017
Crosslinguistic Phonological Development: An International Collaboration
Perspectives of the ASHA Special Interest Groups, May 2017, Vol. 2, 21-29. doi:10.1044/persp2.SIG17.21
History: Received September 25, 2016 , Revised November 7, 2016 , Accepted December 12, 2016
Perspectives of the ASHA Special Interest Groups, May 2017, Vol. 2, 21-29. doi:10.1044/persp2.SIG17.21
History: Received September 25, 2016; Revised November 7, 2016; Accepted December 12, 2016

An international study is investigating phonological development in 12 languages: Romance (Canadian French, Granada, Mexican and Chilean Spanish, and European Portuguese); Germanic (German, English, Swedish, and Icelandic); Semitic (Kuwaiti Arabic); Asian (Japanese, Mandarin); South Slavic (Bulgarian, Slovene). Additional phonological assessment materials have been created for Anishinaabemowin (Algonquian, Canada), Brazilian Portuguese, European French, Punjabi, Tagalog, and Greek. The study has two purposes: (a) to investigate crosslinguistic patterns in phonological development; and (b) to develop assessment tools and treatment activities. Equivalent crosslinguistic methodologies include: (a) single word lists for elicitation that reflect major characteristics of each language; (b) data collection and transcription by native speakers; (c) participant samples of 20–30 preschoolers (ages 3 to 6) with typical versus protracted phonological development; and (d) data analysis supported by Phon, a phonological analysis program. The current paper provides an overview of the study and introduces a website that offers free tutorials and materials for speech-language pathologists (SLPs).

Increasingly, speech-language pathologists (SLPs) are finding the need to respond to multilingual contexts in assessment and treatment. Yet, until relatively recently, information and tools for languages other than English have been sparse or inaccessible (Edwards & Beckman, 2008; McLeod, 2012; McLeod, Verdon, & International Expert Panel on Multilingual Children's Speech, in press). Along with a large team of international collaborators, the current authors have been conducting a crosslinguistic study, both to gain information about phonological development (protracted and typical) and to provide assessment and intervention materials for clinical applications. This paper describes the study, provides clinically applicable results, and gives an introduction to the project website with its free materials and tutorials (The University of British Columbia, n.d.)
Background
Over the past century, linguists have been considering what might be universal versus language-specific across languages, with the overarching goal to better understand human language, its origins, constraints, and processes. In terms of adult phonology, researchers have investigated the structure of words (e.g., sequences of consonants and vowels, syllable formation, and word stress), segments (consonants/vowels), and phonological features across languages (e.g., de Lacy, 2007). However, a comprehensive crosslinguistic comparison of word structure, segments, features, and their interactions remains to be done for child phonology. Although many aspects of typical language development appear to have a similar maturational timetable across languages, the acquisition process can vary notably across children even within a given language (Berko Gleason & Bernstein Ratner, 2009; Vick et al., 2012). Specific characteristics of a language (e.g., phoneme or word structure inventories and frequencies) can also affect the timeline and sequence of acquisition (Ingram, 2012; Pye, Ingram, & List, 1987; i.e., what is late-acquired in one language may be early-acquired in another, depending on the relative frequency and functionality of the element in question). A major challenge for crosslinguistic research is to mitigate effects of individual differences among participants so that similarities and differences among languages become more salient. Large n longitudinal investigations would be most helpful in this regard; but, to date, resources to conduct such studies have not been available. In the interim, researchers can adopt similar methodologies for their smaller studies with respect to participant selection, test materials, data collection, and analysis. The current crosslinguistic study is described below, followed by clinical implications and applications.
Research Process
Origins and Language Selection
The original motivation for the current study came in 2004. An exchange student to the University of British Columbia completed a master's thesis (Ullrich, 2004), applying nonlinear phonological analysis to data from German children with both typically (TD) and protracted phonological development (PPD). An examination of their data suggested some differences from English development with apparent earlier acquisition of the rhotic consonant and codas (syllable-final consonants) in German, even for the children with PPD. In trying to find an explanation for the differences, one could speculate that the German uvular rhotic [ʁ] is perhaps articulatorily more accessible than the English approximant [ɹ], the German rhotic having arguably one place of articulation (Dorsal) and the English rhotic having multiple places: Labial-Coronal-Dorsal (Bernhardt & Stemberger, 1998). However, regarding codas, both languages have a high proportion thereof, suggesting that the coda acquisition timeline might be similar. In fact, early acquisition of codas had been reported elsewhere for German in both TD and PPD groups (e.g., Lleó, 2003). In any case, these findings prompted the expansion of the study, first to German, and then to other languages.
In planning for the larger study, we first decided to focus on monolingual (and where possible, monodialectal) acquisition. Although many countries/regions now have multilingual contexts, the study aims to develop a database for the monolingual context first, in order to diminish influences of additional languages on acquisition. Thus, partnerships for the study are in countries/regions where a certain language/dialect is highly dominant.
A second decision was to include a variety of language families, with more than one exemplar per family where such exist. Within each language family, two types of researchers have been vital to the study: (a) one or more native speakers in the country/region where the language is spoken, who has some knowledge of phonology or phonetics; and (b) one or more language consultants in the home location for the study, often a native speaker of the language, or someone with at least relative proficiency or detailed knowledge of the language's phonology. Although finding local consultants has been relatively easy, finding international contacts has required both personal and academic connections (conferences, referral from other researchers, etc.), with partnership development taking place over several years. We have not had opportunities to travel to all corners of the world, and have been limited also by funds and knowledge of contact opportunities.
With respect to specific language families, the study hub (and funding body) is Canadian, and Canada has three official languages: Inuktitut (official in Nunavut), French, and English. Thus, these three languages provided a starting point for language families: Germanic, Romance, and First Peoples' languages of Canada. As indicated above, we started with the Germanic language family (English, German), expanding to Swedish and Icelandic. For the Romance family, the third author is a Francophone from St. Boniface, Manitoba, a French-speaking area of Canada without previous acquisition research; thus, Manitoba French became the first Romance language variant. Expanding the Romance family, minimal research has been available on Andalusian Spanish, a European variant close to Latin American varieties; hence, Granada Spanish became the primary dialect of study, with Latin American variants (Chilean and Mexican Spanish) more recent additions. Academic and personal contacts have led to inclusion of European Portuguese (Romance), Slavic languages (Slovenian and Bulgarian), one Semitic language (Kuwaiti Arabic), and Asian languages (Mandarin and Japanese). Finally, preliminary data have been collected for Tagalog and the First Nations language Anishinaabemowin (Ojibwe), in keeping with the commitment to the Canadian context. In addition, word lists for elicitation have been created for Punjabi, European French, Brazilian Portuguese, and Greek.
Once we have an informal memorandum of understanding in place with the international researcher(s), the process of ethical review begins at the University of British Columbia and in the countries in which an ethical review board is present. A separate ethical review process is conducted for each language because of variation across countries in ethics review protocols. Thus, anonymous raw data sharing between countries is only possible through the University of British Columbia researchers at the present time. However, through PhonBank, a CHILDES data sharing organization (PhonBank, n.d.-a), transcribed data (and sound files) will become generally available for at least some of the languages and participants, depending on the country and each family's agreement (e.g., Granada Spanish now has a data set in PhonBank; PhonBank, n.d.-b). Once the ethics agreement is in place, the team begins to work together on the specific data collection procedures for the language (described below). While face-to-face meetings do occur, communication by internet is most common.
General Methodology
The following section outlines the general methodology for the study. Deviations from general methods are discussed in the following section.
Participants
The study aims to collect data from 20–30 monolingual preschoolers designated locally as having PPD, and, where funds permit, a matched TD control group (ages 3–6 years). The identification of PPD is a local decision, which we discuss further below under procedural variations. In order to homogenize the PPD cohorts somewhat, testing outside the phonological domain includes a hearing screening and language comprehension test (where available), a short spontaneous language sample, and a one-page parent questionnaire about the child's development and language use. These tests provide a means to include or exclude potential participants, exclusion criteria being notable hearing loss (sensorineural loss, severe chronic otitis media, etc.), delayed language comprehension, cognitive delay, or orofacial anomalies. Limited sentence production does not result in exclusion.
The Phonological Elicitation
The phonological elicitation involves single-word spontaneous naming, a method that matches what is done clinically in many countries and which has some comparability with connected speech data (Masterson, Bernhardt, & Hofheinz, 2005; Tyler & Tolberg, 2002). For each language, a list of approximately 100 words is developed for picture (photo, object) elicitation. Only words that are highly salient in terms of use and imageability are selected for each language. Project leaders and local investigators choose words familiar to children that include major word structures (stress patterns, curriculum vitae [CV] sequences) of the language, and all segments across word positions (usually at least two per position). Ten words are usually elicited more than once each to assess within-word variability later.
After recruiting participants in accordance with the ethics agreement and written caregiver consent, a native speaker tests the children in a quiet room in a 15–60 minute session. A high quality digital audio recording device is used to capture uncompressed audio (e.g., an M-Audio MicroTrack II digital recorder with a Sennheiser remote system: transmitter EK 100 G2 and receiver SK 100 G2, with Countryman remote lapel microphones). In some cases, video recordings are also made to increase transcription reliability. The experimenter utters carrier phrases pertinent to each word, with the child expected to fill in the blank. An attempt is made to avoid articles (e.g., one might say, it's a [big]____). If this does not result in the desired production, delayed and (if necessary) direct imitations are elicited.
Transcription and Analysis
The language team creates a transcription conventions document for the language (see Bernhardt & Stemberger, 2012). A native speaker then transcribes the sample, with reliability of transcription confirmed with a second native speaker or project leader. Data are then entered into Phon, a free phonological data entry and analysis program (Phon, n.d.). Exportation of the data into spreadsheets allows further data analysis.
Deviations From the General Methodology
Participants
Many, but not all, language teams have been able to reach the targeted number of participants. However, sampling differences have occurred (i.e., there are small variations in numbers of children by age group and mean ages across languages). Regarding PPD, the severity level also may not be equivalent across languages. Ranges for Whole Word Match (WWM) 1   for PPD are from 12% average (English, Icelandic) to about 34–42% (Slovene, Granada Spanish, Mandarin). If this disparity had resulted from differences across word lists, then the TD children should also have shown similar variability; but for 4-year-old TD children, the WWM was 80% for Kuwaiti Arabic and Slovene (with complex phonology) and 80–85% for Mandarin and Spanish (with relatively simple phonology). Thus, differences in WWM for the PPD cohorts more likely reflect variation in age or PPD designation/severity. For the project, we resolved this discrepancy for between-language analyses by matching participant samples by age (and where possible, gender), and one or more major phonological variables (WWM, Percent Consonant Match [PCM], etc.).
Transcription Conventions
Achieving transcription agreement for child speech is challenging even for people with similar training (Shriberg & Lof, 1991). Consensus building activities and acoustic analyses can enhance reliability (Bernhardt & Stemberger, 2012) but at least a portion of the data remain ambiguous, even after such processes. For the project, local conventions were accepted if there was no practical consideration of relevance. For example:
  1. Inclusion or exclusion of predictable word-initial glottal stops when not phonemic. (For analysis, word-initial glottal stops were counted as deletions if a target consonant was missing.)

  2. Transcription of Spanish /t͡ʃ/ as [t͡ʃ] although what is produced is closer to [t͡ɕ].

  3. For Swedish, omission of consonant length markers, because consonant length is predictable from vowel length (in adult speech).

Transcription disagreements are entered into the notes tier of Phon, to be considered later, and adult targets are adjusted if the native language group feels that there is more than one possible adult pronunciation.
The reliability of international transcription has been enhanced by these methods. For example, for Granada Spanish, agreement for segments for TD samples is 96%, and for PPD samples is 93.6%. We have discovered during the consensus building process that most people hear most aspects of the production when it is brought to their attention. Certain things are often considered irrelevant, however, because of conventions in the particular language (e.g., in the case of Spanish as noted above). What the team learns together is how to agree on relevant aspects of the production, which symbols to use, and how to interpret them.
Key Findings to Date and Their Clinical Implications
Analyses are ongoing, but we present here some key findings to date, describing implications for further exploration or clinical practice. The first sections describe general results across studies, both general and variable. The second section describes language-specific phenomena.
General Phonological Results: The Value of Nonlinear Phonological Analyses
Nonlinear phonological frameworks describe independent levels of representation and processing for all aspects of the phonology from the prosodic phrase or word to the phonological feature (Bernhardt & Stemberger, 1998). Data from the project are showing the value of investigating word structures independent of segments, and also the interactions between word structure and segments. Relative to word structure, the Bernhardt et al. (2015a)  study of Granada Spanish preschoolers provides benchmark data for word structure development in 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds; notable differences were observed between TD and PPD groups, especially concerning long words, and word shapes with word-initial clusters. In terms of interactions between segments and word structure, the Bérubé and colleagues (2012, 2016) studies of Canadian French have shown less accurate production of challenging elements (fricatives, liquids, clusters, and nasalized vowels) in unstressed than stressed syllables by both young TD children and children with PPD. Further, the children with PPD have shown particular difficulty with unstressed syllables in multisyllabic words, a cumulative effect of complexity. Similar effects were noted in two children speaking Argentinian and Mexican Spanish (Chávez-Peón et al., 2012).
In terms of clinical practice, the crosslinguistic data emphasize the importance of going beyond a segmental analysis. Word length, stress, and word shape (CV sequences) have their own developmental trajectories and paths, and also influence production of segments. By analyzing data across the various levels of the phonological hierarchy, the clinician can find strategies for intervention that capitalize on strengths within the system that can be used to address the various needs (see also The University of British Columbia, n.d.)
General Phonological Results: The Challenges of Variants
A major aspect of phonological analysis is comparison of the client's productions with the adult targets of the dialect area. Key to a valid analysis of this type is identification of possible variants in adult pronunciations in a region. In the crosslinguistic study, discovering the range of variants has proven to be relatively challenging. For the study, we collect speech samples from at least one adult from the dialect area, and consult the literature and native speakers in the region/country. Many aspects of pronunciation remain elusive, however, because dialects are in flux, both across and within speakers. For example, for Granada Spanish, data were collected from three local adults. Not only did they differ in use of [s] versus [θ] (seseo versus ceceo) and in coda use (optional in Granada Spanish), but sometimes pronunciations of the same target varied even within one individual. In another example, our TD Mandarin data from Shanghai show what appear to be developmental issues in tone trajectory and use of retroflexes (Lai, Bernhardt, Zhao, & Stemberger, 2011). However, Shanghainese tone has a lower pitch trajectory than Beijing Mandarin tone; Thus, at least some children's use of tone in Shanghainese Mandarin may reflect the influence of Shanghainese. Retroflexes are articulatorily challenging and thus their nonuse might be considered developmental. However, some children were using them when they were not required. A recent study suggests that some young female adults in Shanghai may hypercorrect their Mandarin pronunciations (Starr & Jurafsky, 2004), using retroflexes where they are not in the adult Mandarin target. Some children in our study may have picked up on this adult variability. There is a clear need for further study of dialects across languages.
For clinicians, it can be challenging to learn what is acceptable even in their own dialect. Training programs may focus on the “standard” language, with minimal education on variations across regions or dialect groups, although perspectives in speech-language pathology regarding dialect have been changing in recent years (ASHA, 2003). However, there still remains minimal information on variants across languages. Reading, coursework, and especially listening to speakers of the communities are a necessary part of clinicians' job training, and one that is ongoing, because languages can change quickly.
General Phonological Results: Whole Word Match
As noted above, one source of cross-study variability concerns WWM. Although we are still compiling results of WWM, PCM, and other variables for the different languages in the study, we have already learned that 4-year-old TD children may have a WWM of about 80%, irrespective of the complexity of the language (given that the phonology test is sufficiently comprehensive). 2   This benchmark aligns well with McLeod, Crowe, and Shahaeian's (2015)  Intelligibility in Context Scale result for English-speaking TD 4 to 5.5-year-olds. The children achieved a 4.4/5 score, indicating relatively high intelligibility (another “80%” value). Such values may prove useful to clinicians across languages in multilingual contexts. Even if a clinician does not have sufficient information about a language to determine whether the client's pronunciation matched adult targets, an untrained native speaker (e.g., parent or interpreter) can be called upon to make such judgments, and in the future, maybe even computer programs. The 80% benchmark appears useful for 4-year-olds across a number of languages, and the project will be compiling further data for other languages and age groups.
However, as noted above, the WWM of children with PPD does appear to vary in our study, depending on participant selection and the definition of PPD in the various regions. Further investigation of the definition of PPD is clearly warranted crosslinguistically.
Language-Specific Phenomena
Data from the project are also showing some language-specific outcomes that reflect inventories, frequencies, and functionality of various elements. For example, a comparison of diphthong development in Spanish versus Mandarin for a matched group of eight preschoolers with PPD showed higher diphthong match scores for Mandarin (72%) than Spanish (45%), even though the Spanish monophthong scores were higher (over 90%) and Percent Consonant Match scores were equivalent (51%, 57% respectively). Interestingly, the triphthong match scores for Mandarin were at the level of the diphthong scores for Spanish (50% vs. 45% match respectively). The most challenging vowel sequence type in the language thus showed the same level of accuracy, in spite of other differences between languages. Although future studies would need to confirm such data with larger sample sizes, the finding suggests that there may be within-language influences of complexity. The most complex element may develop on a similar timeline as a less complex element in another language, where that element is the most complex. This is highly speculative, but it resonates with previous research on implicational universals, suggesting that targeting complex elements in treatment will result in improvement on less complex elements (Gierut, 2007). By extension, these data may support that intervention perspective.
Finally, research on fricatives in German, Icelandic, and English for comparable levels of PPD has shown that a language's phonetic inventories and frequencies can influence substitution patterns (Bernhardt, Romonath, & Stemberger, 2014; Bernhardt et al., 2015b): (a) palatals were more common substitutions in German and Icelandic than in English, possibly reflecting the higher proportion of palatal segments in German and Icelandic; (b) affricates were more common in German and English than Icelandic, which has no affricates; and (c) [+spread glottis] substitutions were more common in Icelandic, which has a high proportion of segments with that feature (i.e., pre- and post-aspirated stops, voiceless fricatives, /h/ and voiceless sonorants). Where clinicians are treating multilingual clients, inventory differences between the languages may affect substitution patterns and may suggest pathways for intervention exploiting variations in inventory (e.g., successive approximation from a segment in one language to a near variant in another language).
Final Clinical Note
As noted at the outset, the project has an open-access website where the majority of our assessment tools and resources are now available (The University of British Columbia, n.d.). The website also includes tutorials, treatment activity examples and references. The two types of tutorials are on: (a) transcription in languages other than English (in English); and (b) nonlinear phonological scan analysis (in English, French, and Spanish with examples). As a break from the serious business of transcription and analysis, colleagues and students demonstrate a number of fun-ological activities in Cantonese, English, French, Mandarin, Slovene, and Spanish to stimulate new ideas for therapy across languages.
Acknowledgments
We would like to thank all of our partners and their assistants in the many countries, and of course the children and families who have participated. We also thank the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada for their support: Grant numbers 410-2009-0348, 611-2012-0164.
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Footnotes
1 Whole Word Match is a measure of accuracy for all segments within each word of the sample, small deviations in phonetic placement and voicing being considered acceptable.
Whole Word Match is a measure of accuracy for all segments within each word of the sample, small deviations in phonetic placement and voicing being considered acceptable.×
2 Schmitt, Howard, and Schmitt (1983)  for English, also found an 80% WWM for 4-year-olds.
Schmitt, Howard, and Schmitt (1983)  for English, also found an 80% WWM for 4-year-olds.×
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