The phonology of a language is defined as the study of the systematic organization of sounds in that language. Because of its Latin roots, Spanish shares a number of phonological characteristics with other Romance languages, with some distinct variations. Of particular interest is the acquisition of the ability to distinguish between particular phonological sounds when learning the language.
When learning Spanish (or any language) as a second language, the order in which different phonological developments occur is likely to depend on ways in which the learned language is and is not similar to the speaker’s native language. However, clear levels of development can be identified when the language is acquired as a first language (usually in children learning to speak). These levels can be thought of as requisites; if a speaker is able to make distinctions in speaking on one level, they are very likely to be able to make distinctions on every previous level.
Levels of Phonological Development
The first level includes nasals and stops (but with no voicing distinction). It does however include a labial/coronal place difference (for instance, an ability to distinguish between [b] and [t]). The second level adds voicing distinction for stops, and an additional ability to identify coronal and dorsal place difference (such as the differences between [p], [t], and [k]). The third level adds fricatives and affricates (such as [f]). The fourth level adds liquids, besides [l], [ɹ] and [ɾ], which have likely been acquired previously. Finally the trill [r] is acquired.
The final characteristic (known as an alveolar trill, or commonly known as the ability to “roll an r”) is of particular interest because of its difficulty. It is usually the latest skill to be acquired in development, and often takes speakers who are learning Spanish as a second language years to acquire (unless it is part of their native language as well). In children learning the language for the first time, it is most commonly developed between the ages of three and six, but children are not always successful at acquiring this skill.
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