Erika Levy is Director of the Speech Production and Perception Lab at Teacher's College of Columbia University. She does research on the effects of second language learning on speech performance. Please visit here to learn more about her.
You have studied Linguistics and Speech and Language Pathology. In what languages do you specialize?
My research questions involve bilingualism in general, as well as the particular languages. (I am a French/English/German trilingual with knowledge of other languages.) Currently, I am examining Spanish-English bilinguals' perception and production, but my past research has been on French and German. I am particularly interested in children's perception and comprehension of accented speech.
What motivated you to study language acquisition?
How can one not study language acquisition?! I was probably influenced by my mother’s being a French teacher, my father’s being a writer, and growing up in a bilingual (French/English) home in Czechoslovakia and in Austria. I received a master's in linguistics, became a speech pathologist, and my interest in bilingualism and language learning persisted. So I continued to research bilingualism and second-language learning for my Ph.D. As a professor at Teachers College, Columbia, I have the opportunity to continue to perform research in the field.
How does learning a second language affect speech development?
Whether children are monolingual, bilingual or trilingual, they say their first word at approximately 12 months. So learning a second language does not seem to make a difference in terms of first words or the ultimate ability to speak languages. It is very normal and common for people to speak more than one language--in many countries, monolingualism is the exception and bilingualism or trilingualism is the norm. The evidence suggests that introducing a second language is not harmful to a child's first language. That said, while a child is acquiring two languages, some differences do emerge between monolinguals and bilinguals. For example, at 18 months, a monolingual English-speaking child might have 50 words in English. A bilingual (Spanish-English-speaking) child of the same age is likely to have the same total number of words (50), but 25 in English and 25 in Spanish. This may reflect the cognitive/memory load that an 18-month old child is able to manage. If you look at just one language of the bilingual then, s/he might look delayed compared to the bilingual at that point in development. However, if you look at both languages, they are performing the same. Another way to think about it is that the bilingual is about 3 months behind the monolingual for a couple of years in the acquisition of English. Within a couple of years, they catch up. (Much of my response is based on E. Hoff’s work.)
What can parents do to help their bilingual children with their speech development?
Parents can foster the enjoyment of both languages just as they foster the joy of communication in one language. Forcing it won't work. Play music, sing songs. A babysitter or parent who speaks the second language is probably the most effective way to help a child develop that language, especially if that person doesn't speak the child's other language. The more high-quality, consistent input in both languages they have, and the more motivated the child is to speak, the more successful the language learning is likely to be. The one-parent per language technique appears to be effective in helping the child understand the form of each language. I also tend to be explicit when teaching a child a new word. For example, I'll use the word "fromage" and say "Maman dit 'fromage'. Papa dit 'cheese'." (Maman says "fromage", Papa says "cheese".)
Why did you decide to create the CD and book series Baby's First Words in Spanish (and other languages)?
Random House approached me after hearing about my research. They asked me to write a proposal for a book and CD that would introduce babies to languages early, which I did. They liked it, so I started writing.
How should a non-native speaker of a second language go about teaching their children the second language?
Non-native speaking parents can brush up on their second language and do their best, but in order to expose their child to the "target" language/speech pattern, they will need to rely on babysitters who are native speakers of the language and other immersion sorts of environments. There are dual language immersion programs at some schools in NYC, for example, that are very effective. The more the child needs to communicate in a language, the more effective the learning will be. Children's brains are so plastic that if the motivation and input are there, they will absorb the language like sponges.
I also had another personal question for her about how my daughter still cannot pronounce the Spanish r. I asked her by what age would it be a concern if they cannot roll their r's.
An article by Brian Goldstein (reference below) suggests that trills are often not mastered until about 1st grade. But these norms are for monolingual Spanish speakers. I attended a talk recently by Fabiano-Smith, who worked with Goldstein. She reported some work on bilinguals. It seems that sounds that are similar in the two languages (e.g., f and m) are mastered at similar ages by bilinguals as by monolinguals, but sounds that differ across a bilingual’s two languages (e.g., r) are mastered a bit later in bilinguals than monolinguals. So no worries about your daughters’ r production yet.
Reference: Goldstein, B. (1995). Spanish Phonological Development. In H. Kayser (Ed), Bilingual speech-language pathology: An Hispanic focus, 17-38. San Diego: Singular Publishing Group.
I loved understanding how speech affects second language learning. I heard of Erika Levy first by listening to her CD, Baby's First Words in Spanish, that introduces children to songs through traditional rhymes and songs. I highly recommend the product. My girls love it and it helps them practice Spanish sounds and pronunciation. This product also has versions in French, Chinese and Italian!