Phoneme Error Pattern by Heritage Speakers of Spanish on an English Word Recognition Test

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Heritage speakers acquire their native language from home use in their early childhood. As the native language is typically a minority language in the society, these individuals receive their formal education in the majority language and eventually develop greater competency with the majority than their native language. To date, there have not been specific research attempts to understand word recognition by heritage speakers. It is not clear if and to what degree we may infer from evidence based on bilingual listeners in general.


This preliminary study investigated how heritage speakers of Spanish perform on an English word recognition test and analyzed their phoneme errors.

Research Design:

A prospective, cross-sectional, observational design was employed.

Study Sample:

Twelve normal-hearing adult Spanish heritage speakers (four men, eight women, 20-38 yr old) participated in the study. Their language background was obtained through the Language Experience and Proficiency Questionnaire. Nine English monolingual listeners (three men, six women, 20-41 yr old) were also included for comparison purposes.

Data Collection and Analysis:

Listeners were presented with 200 Northwestern University Auditory Test No. 6 words in quiet. They repeated each word orally and in writing. Their responses were scored by word, word-initial consonant, vowel, and word-final consonant. Performance was compared between groups with Student's t test or analysis of variance. Group-specific error patterns were primarily descriptive, but intergroup comparisons were made using 95% or 99% confidence intervals for proportional data.


The two groups of listeners yielded comparable scores when their responses were examined by word, vowel, and final consonant. However, heritage speakers of Spanish misidentified significantly more word-initial consonants and had significantly more difficulty with initial /p, b, h/ than their monolingual peers. The two groups yielded similar patterns for vowel and word-final consonants, but heritage speakers made significantly fewer errors with /e/ and more errors with word-final /p, k/.


Data reported in the present study lead to a twofold conclusion. On the one hand, normal-hearing heritage speakers of Spanish may misidentify English phonemes in patterns different from those of English monolingual listeners. Not all phoneme errors can be readily understood by comparing Spanish and English phonology, suggesting that Spanish heritage speakers differ in performance from other Spanish-English bilingual listeners. On the other hand, the absolute number of errors and the error pattern of most phonemes were comparable between English monolingual listeners and Spanish heritage speakers, suggesting that audiologists may assess word recognition in quiet in the same way for these two groups of listeners, if diagnosis is based on words, not phonemes.

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