The Polish language is well known for its broad range of consonant sequences. Among other things, Polish words may begin with consonant sequences that in languages like English are only allowed in word-medial or word-final position. The sequence /pt/, for instance, is found in the middle and at the end of English words such as raptor or apt, but never at the beginning. In Polish, however, we find words such as ptak (meaning ‘bird’), with the sequence /pt/ occurring word-initially. English does have some types of word-initial sequences that are similar to the /p/> type, notably /st/ as in “stain”, /sp/ as in “spin”, and /sk/ as in “skate”, but these are a proper subset of the sequences found in Polish.
In this paper we wanted to investigate whether children who acquire English together with Polish might be at an advantage when it comes to consonant sequences. We reasoned that Polish-speaking children might rely on their knowledge of the phonological “superset” provided by the Polish system to buttress their development of a “subset” system such as the one required by English consonant sequences. To test this hypothesis, we examined the production of consonant clusters in simultaneous Polish–English bilingual children and in language-matched English monolinguals (aged 7;01–8;11) using a nonword repetition task. The “nonwords” were made up of sound sequences that follow English phonotactics but that are not actual English words, in order to control for potential prior learning effects.
Our results showed that the Polish-English bilinguals consistently outperformed the English monolinguals in the production of English-like nonwords beginning with /st/, /sp/, and /sk/. These results indicate that exposure to a language with a broad range of word-initial consonant sequences can accelerate the development of a second language whose consonant sequences are a proper subset of the first. While crosslinguistic influence in bilinguals has been reported numerous times, this is the first time it has been found to positively affect word-initial consonant sequences.
These findings have a number of implications for our understanding of the development of bilingual phonology as well as for competing views of phonological organisation and phonological complexity.