The Complex Role of Utterance Length on Grammaticality: Multivariate Multilevel Analysis of English and Spanish Utterances of First-Grade English Learners

J Speech Lang Hear Res. 2021 Nov 24;1-15. doi: 10.1044/2021_JSLHR-20-00464. Online ahead of print.

Abstract

Purpose: This study examined the relationship between utterance length, syntactic complexity, and the probability of making an error at the utterance level.

Method: The participants in this study included 830 Spanish-speaking first graders who were learning English at school. Story retells in both Spanish and English were collected from all children. Generalized mixed linear models were used to examine within-child and between-children effects of utterance length and subordination on the probability of making an error at the utterance level.

Results: The relationship between utterance length and grammaticality was found to differ by error type (omission vs. commission), language (Spanish vs. English), and level of analysis (within-child vs. between-children). For errors of commission, the probability of making an error increased as a child produced utterances that were longer relative to their average utterance length (within-child effect). Contrastively, for errors of omission, the probability of making an error decreased when a child produced utterances that were longer relative to their average utterance length (within-child effect). In English, a child who produced utterances that were, on average, longer than the average utterance length for all children produced more errors of commission and fewer errors of omission (between-children effect). This between-children effect was similar in Spanish for errors of commission but nonsignificant for errors of omission. For both error types, the within-child effects of utterance length were moderated by the use of subordination.

Conclusion: The relationship between utterance length and grammaticality is complex and varies by error type, language, and whether the frame of reference is the child's own language (within-child effect) or the language of other children (between-children effect). Supplemental Material https://doi.org/10.23641/asha.17035916.