First of its kind research aids multilingual Fijian children’s speech sound acquisition

16 AUGUST 2022

First of its kind research aids multilingual Fijian children’s speech sound acquisition

Research by speech pathology experts at Charles Sturt University is shedding new light on children’s speech sound acquisition in Fiji.

  • Charles Sturt University original research examines multilingualism and children’s speech sound acquisition in Fiji
  • Multilingualism is commonplace for Fijian children in day-to-day life, and this is the first research on children’s speech sound acquisition in the South Pacific
  • Speech-language pathologists and other communication specialists need to consider children’s dialect for valid identification of speech sound disorder (SSD) in Fijian children who speak different dialects of Fiji English

Research by speech pathology experts at Charles Sturt University is shedding new light on children’s speech sound acquisition in Fiji.

Two recently published papers describe the first research on children’s speech sound acquisition in the multilingual South Pacific nation.

The research articles (full references in Media Note at the end) are by lead author Ms Holly McAlister, a PhD student in the Charles Sturt School of Allied Health, Exercise and Sport Sciences, with Dr Suzanne Hopf, in the same School, and Professor Sharynne McLeod in the Charles Sturt School of Education.

The aim of the respective studies was to firstly investigate Fijian students’ acquisition of Fiji English speech sounds, and then determine:

1. What are the speech sound errors present in Fijian school-age children speaking Fiji English; and 2. What influence does consideration of Fiji English dialect during relational analysis have on the identification and the rating of severity of SSD for school-age children from different first language backgrounds?

“Fiji is a multilingual nation and has limited access to speech-language pathology services,” Ms McAlister said. “This research is important because speech-language pathologists and other communication specialists need to consider children’s dialect for valid identification of speech sound disorder (SSD) in Fijian children who speak different dialects of Fiji English.”

Fijian cultural and linguistic context

Fiji is a collection of more than 300 islands with a total population of 884,887 and has three institutional languages ─ Standard Fijian, Standard Hindi, and English. Indigenous Fijians (iTaukei), who comprise about half of the country’s total population, speak more than 300 ‘communalects’ of Fijian.

As a result of British colonialism, a ‘standard’ dialect was adopted for official use, which today is called Standard, Bauan, or iTaukei Fijian.

The second largest cultural group in Fiji are Indo-Fijians, descendants of northern Indian peoples brought to Fiji under a British indenture program. Standard Hindi is considered the official language of this group; however, Fiji Hindi, which has borrowed features from northern Indian languages, English and Fijian, is the more widely spoken language of Indo-Fijians.

English, a former colonial language with few native speakers, was adopted as a ‘lingua franca’ and is mostly used in government, education and media.

Other commonly spoken languages include Rotuman and immigrant languages (e.g. Urdu, Guajarati, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Kiribati, Tuvaluan, and Cantonese).

Multilingualism is commonplace for Fijian children in day-to-day life. An earlier 2018 study of 140 Fijian students and their conversational partners found that 96.6 per cent were multilingual. Of the 74 Fijian children aged between five and 11 in the study, 94.6 per cent spoke more than one language, while 17.6 per cent spoke more than four languages.

The problem

Ms McAlister explained SSDs are one of the most common childhood communication disorders and encompass any difficulty or combination of difficulties with the perception, articulation, or phonological representation of speech sounds or speech segments.

SSD is common in preschool and school-age children internationally, and an individual’s health, wellbeing, and participation in life and future social and academic success may be impacted by a communication disorder which is recognised as a potential barrier to oral-language and literacy acquisition,” Ms McAlister said.

“In Fiji homes, Fijian and Fiji Hindi are spoken widely, however, at school, Fiji English is the dominant language.

“Given that Fiji English proficiency is aligned to academic success in Fiji, our research sought to investigate the incidence of SSD among Fijian children speaking different dialects of Fiji English and the impact of dialect on diagnostic decision-making by speech-language pathologists (SLPs).”

Original impactful research

Ms McAlister said that until now there had been no studies of children’s speech acquisition in the Pacific islands and respecting dialectical diversity in the production of Fiji English is critical for speech pathologists to providing services for Fijian children.

“Speech-language pathologists working with this population are encouraged to use this information to inform their assessment practices with Fijian children and ensure that dialectical difference is not incorrectly identified as SSD,” she said.

“For example, some Fijian children presented with SSD in Fiji English upon school entry and beyond. However, the impact of dialect on diagnostic decision making was significant.

“When Fiji English dialects were the target, instead of Australian English, the mean percentage of consonants correct increased 10.2 per cent and 24 out of 26 students who were initially identified with SSD were then reclassified.”

Ms McAlister said that because multilingual Fijian children may acquire English-specific sounds later than their monolingual English-speaking peers, culturally responsive speech-language pathology practice requires the clinician to understand the cultural and linguistic background of the client.

“Consideration of the language environment and analysis of the speech sample with reference to the child’s dominant English dialect is imperative for valid identification of speech sound disorder in children who speak different dialects of English,” she said.

“Therefore, it is imperative that speech-language pathologists can determine whether SSD is present by drawing on knowledge of typical speech sound acquisition, and that’s the valuable contribution this research makes.”


Media Note:

To arrange interviews with Ms Holly McAlister, Dr Suzanne Hopf and Professor Sharynne McLeod contact Bruce Andrews at Charles Sturt Media on mobile 0418 669 362 or news@csu.edu.au 

Photo: Holly McAlister’s Charles Sturt academic supervisor, Dr Suzanne Hopf, collecting speech samples in Fiji

References:

Holly McAlister, Suzanne C Hopf, and Sharynne McLeod (2022): ‘Effect of dialect on identification and severity of speech sound disorder in Fijian children’, Speech, Language and Hearing, DOI: 10.1080/2050571X.2022.2052506 (published 1 April 2022)

Holly McAlister, Sharynne McLeod & Suzanne C Hopf (2022): ‘Fijian school students’ Fiji English speech sound acquisition’, International Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, DOI: 10.1080/17549507.2022.2044905 (published 17 April 2022)


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