Voiceless stops, voice onset time, center of gravity, early bilinguals, second language phonological systems


Aims and objectives/purpose/research questions: Many early Spanish-English bilingual speakers in the USA learn Spanish as their first language at home and English in school. This paper seeks to elucidate whether these speakers develop a separate phonological system for English and, if so, the role of primary and secondary cues in the development of the second language (L2) system.

Design/methodology/approach: The phonetic realization of the voiceless stops /p/, /t/, /k/ is analyzed among three groups: early Spanish-English bilinguals; L1 English speakers who are late learners of Spanish; and L1 Spanish speakers who are late learners of English. The participants (N = 15) engaged in a reading task and a conversation task in each language during a single recording session.

Data and analysis: 1578 tokens of /p/, /t/, /k/ were extracted and analyzed using acoustic software. Voice onset time in milliseconds and center of gravity in Hertz were analyzed, and monofactorial and multifactorial analyses were performed to determine the role of linguistic background.

Findings/conclusions: Evidence is found of two phonological systems among early bilingual speakers, with varying degrees of assimilation to the phonological systems of the native speakers of each language.

Originality: We argue that early bilinguals construct their L2 system of /p/, /t/, /k/ in English based on the primary cue of voice onset time rather than the secondary cue of center of gravity, as they are accustomed to noticing differences in voice onset time in Spanish and because the center of gravity of /p/, /t/, /k/ in English is more variable than voice onset time, and therefore represents a more variable and less predictable cue for early bilinguals as they construct their L2 system.

Significance/implications: This paper contributes to the literature on the construction of phonological systems and to research detailing the speech of early Spanish-English bilinguals.

Original Publication Citation

Brown, Earl K. & Mary T. Copple. (2018). "Constructing two phonological systems: A phoneticanalysis of /p/, /t/, /k/ among early Spanish-English bilingual speakers." International Journal of Bilingualism, 22(1): 51-68.

Document Type

Peer-Reviewed Article

Publication Date



SAGE Publishing







University Standing at Time of Publication

Associate Professor

Included in

Linguistics Commons