Examination Thesis, 2008, 69 Pages
The Acquisition of Phonology
SCHRIFTLICHE HAUSARBEIT IM RAHMEN DER
ERSTEN STAATSPRÜFUNG FÜR DAS
LEHRAMT AN GYMNASIEN/GESAMTSCHULEN
DEM LANDESPRÜFUNGSAMT I NRW
SARAH SCHMIDT - ESSEN, JUNI, 2008
Table of Contents
II. Acquisition of phonology 6
II.1. Definitions 7
II.2. Prerequisites to the acquisition of a language′s phonology 14
II.3. Infant speech perception 15
II.4. The sound laws of child language 19
II.5. Pre-language stage: cooing and babbling 22
II.6. Development: From early speech production onwards 24
II.7. In detail: Speech production 29
II.7.1. Building a system of contrasts 29
II.7.2. Phonological processes 31
II.8. The importance of stressed syllables in production 40
II.9. Baby talk 42
III. Markedness 45
III.1. About markedness: Definitions and approaches 45
III.2. Features of markedness 47
III.3. Phonological markedness: values and markedness reversals 52
III.4. Markedness and language acquisition 58
IV. Conclusion 62
This critical essay investigates the acquisition of phonology. It is amazing how rapidly children develop in the first years of their lives. The acquisition of their mother tongue is especially fascinating because it is such a complex process. Not only the linguistic code has to be fully acquired but also all its rules and norms. That is, apart from the language′s phonology, morphology, syntax, lexis and semantics, constituting the code of every language pragmatic rules are also important for the daily use and the full dominance of a language. This essay focuses on the most basic field, phonology, and explains how a child acquires the target language′s phonology. Although the stages of the acquisition process are described generally since they are universal and hold true for all children independently of their mother tongue, the attention is on the English phonology in particular.
First language acquisition in general is an important topic, not only for linguists. To have knowledge about it also helps the parents to raise children, especially in bilingual situations. I, myself, consider it very useful to write about such a topic as one can learn to understand what and how many stages and steps are actually involved. If we know how it works, perhaps we may also understand why children initially make errors or quite unusual utterances or even extraordinary sounds (in the pre-language stages) while acquiring the native language.
The essay will provide information about the whole acquisition process. However, the main focus will be on the first four to six years. These are especially interesting to me as on the one hand the infant′s development during these years is very rapid (not only in a linguistic sense) and on the other hand it is useful to know about and understand the errors - which are to a certain degree universal - since they give important information: Errors do not only help us to learn about the acquisition process of a language but also about language loss. As one will see later on aphasics experience a "reversed acquisition process"; that is, the first acquired sounds, structures and so on are the last to be lost and vice versa. Besides, errors also help us to understand more about language change and language death.
This essay is structured as follows: First, I will give definitions of the basic technical terms concerning phonology and phonetics respectively (chapter II.1.). The definitions of vowels and consonants are extended to show the complexity of sound production and thus, the complexity a child has to "fight" with during the process of acquiring a language. Not only a classification of sounds and a phonemic contrast have to be acquired but the articulating organs have to get used to special movements and usage first. Furthermore, the definitions facilitate a fluent reading and a good understanding of the acquisition process. Afterwards, the different stages from birth onwards will be presented chronologically. Therefore, I will begin with the prerequisites which are important to make the acquisition process possible (II.2.). Then it will be explained how the infant actually perceives language (chapter II.3.). This stage is important for the child to learn what constitutes a sound in the target language, i.e. to get to know the language′s phonemic contrasts. According to the mentalist the input is essential to start the entire acquisition process. This pre-phase is the speech perception stage. In chapter II.4., I will come to universal sound laws. These are laws that hold true for all children independently of the mother tongue to be acquired. They will first be presented and later on (in chapter III.4. markedness and language acquisition), they will be explained and interpreted by markedness features and values. The child actually goes through another pre-language stage: the cooing and babbling phase (chapter II.5.). This is where it starts to produce the first comprehensible sounds. Thus the point of view changes from speech perception to speech production. It will be explained why children initially utter "rare sounds". After this pre-stage, the infants begin with their first `real′ words (chapter II.6.). I will not only describe their first word utterances but will also shortly provide the reader with the children′s non-linguistic development to show the extent to which language develops independently of other cognitive systems. In the actual speech production children have to build up a system of contrasts where they place sounds into categories (chapter II.7.1.). Knowing about these systems, it is understandable why they replace certain phonemes whereas others will not be replaced. They do not truthfully repeat the word X but their pronunciation of this word rather differs slightly from the adult′s utterance although they try to imitate it correctly. Besides,
in a later stage children continue to commit "errors" in their speech. However,
these can be to a certain degree predictable and follow logic structures. Therefore,
they can be described by typical phonological processes (chapter II.7.2.). That is
why some errors are committed "this way and not another way round". Naturally,
every child tries to facilitate the pronunciation of words. The processes are
universal but some are especially important for English children. Furthermore,
they show the importance of stressed syllables in production (chapter II.8.). Stress
serves to learn the natural boundaries of a word. The infant has to learn what a
word is. Before coming to markedness, I will do an excursion about the wellknown phenomenon of baby talk (chapter II.9.). Everybody has heard of and some
have experience it themselves: A newborn is presented to us and we automatically
switch into a "rare language" addressing our speech to it. Some might even call it
"making a fool of us". The same behaviour can be observed when (especially)
women see pets and small animals they consider sweet.
The next thematic block deals with markedness (III.). Markedness is important in the context of phonology but also for syntax and semantics. It helps us to get a better understanding about the development of language and to learn more about its structure. Thus the study of markedness is also relevant for language development, change, aphasia and language acquisition. But what exactly is markedness? A short introduction with definitions will be given. Afterwards, the reader will be introduced to two more common of the several approaches to markedness (chapter III.1.). In the next chapter I will show that phonemes are not the smallest distinctive unit as is generally explained to students of linguistics. A phoneme is rather subdivided into smaller parts: so called features. There are different suggestions about distinctive feature systems. However, I will present just one proposed by Jakobson and Halle (chapter III.2.) and then give a detailed description of the features. These have all markedness values which will be discussed (chapter III.3.). In a penultimate chapter (chapter III.4.) markedness will be brought into relation with language acquisition. Therefore, the main phenomena in the acquisition process will be discussed and analysed according to the explained features and markedness values. In the end I will critically review this essay (chapter IV.).
I will work with several books and articles about language acquisition and
markedness. Furthermore, a useful source is always the German Lexikon der
Sprachwissenschaft. For the definitions I will use Dretzke′s book of Modern
British and American English Pronunciation. Besides, not only English but also
French and German examples will be given concerning the phonological
processes. Their phonetical transcriptions are taken from the Oxford Bilingual
Dictionaries on CD-Rom. All transcriptions are in Standard British and not
II. Acquisition of phonology
What exactly is meant by the word acquisition? In how far do phonology and phonetics differ from one another? First language acquisition is a process whereby children unconsciously acquire their mother tongue in the case of monolingual speakers or their mother tongues, in the event of bi- and multi-lingual speakers respectively. The process takes place during the first six or seven years of children′s lives until the lateralisation of their brains occurs as a possible result of hormonal changes (cf. Hickey 2003).
The ability of acquiring a language has four main characteristics: It is an instinct, that is, it is triggered by birth and it is very rapid as children acquire their native tongue within only a few years time. Besides, it is complete, so that a person will never forget his/her first language and is able to speak it with native speaker′s competence in contrast to a foreign language. Even if a second language learner has perfect knowledge of the acquired second language, s/he nonetheless hardly reaches the level C2 of the Common European Framework of References for Languages1. Thus, a second language can be native tongue-like but we can actually never master it as good as our mother tongue. Furthermore, first language acquisition does not require instructions and may be genetically encoded (cf. Hickey 2003, Bußmann 2002: 620).
Phonetics deals with the physical aspects and characteristics of all human sounds whereas phonology is restricted to the functional aspects of sounds in a
1 For more information see The Council of Europe.
The Acquisition of Phonology 7
particular language (cf. Dretzke 1998: 17, Yule 1996: 41, 54, Microsoft Encarta 2005a). To narrow the definition of acquisition of phonology down: it is the process whereby children acquire the target language′s phonology, including its functional aspects like the language′s specific sound contrasts (see also chapter II.7.1.). However, in the whole acquisition process not only a set of phonological rules is chronologically acquired but also a set of morphological, syntactical and semantic rules. Furthermore, these processes are largely independent of intelligence although the degree of competence acquired may vary among individuals (cf. Hickey 2003).
It is essential to start with the most important definitions of technical terms used in connection to phonology. Those are as follows: The three main elements concerning phonology and phonetics are phone, phoneme and allophone. A phone is any sound used in a language whereas a phoneme is the smallest distinctive sound unit of a particular language. An allophone is the actual realisation of a phoneme in different contexts (cf. Dretzke 2003: 17, Bußmann 2002: 68). The Spanish word monte `mountain′ serves as an example. It can be pronounced like /mÈntq/ (with the o slightly nasalized) or /montq/. Thus, there are two valid pronunciations for this particular word and, therefore, two different phonemes. However, there are no differences in meaning.
Since the main topic of this essay is phonology, a classification of vowels and consonants is appropriate. The difference between vowels and consonants lies in their `production processes′. In the production of the latter the airstream from the lungs is blocked in the oral cavity or pharynx whereas vowels are produced completely without obstruction. Therefore, they are uttered with a vibration of the vocal cords and are thus voiced.
As far as the phonetic classification of vowels is concerned, there are different
types of vowels. They can be monophthongs, that is, a full vowel like fit /fit/ or
diphthongs and triphthongs where the vowel′s quality changes over the duration of
its production. Consequently, the tongue changes its position in the production of
diphthongs. Thus the position at the beginning of a vowel is not the same as at the
end of it. Hence, there are two elements in a syllable as in fear /fiq/, where one of
them becomes a gliding vowel. In a triphthong there are three elements as in
flower //flauq/. English monophthongs include /i i: u u: o: q =: e @ a: > v/.
Diphthongs are /ei ai oi au qu iq eq uq/ and there are only a few triphthongs in
English /eiq aiq oiq quq auq/.
Vowels are not only classified according to types but also according to their length, the force of their articulation, the position of the lips, the tongue and the position of the velum. Phonetically, monophthongs can be short like u in /put/ and long like u: in /pu:l/ whereas diphthongs and triphthongs are only long vowels. Phonologically and since English is a stress-timed language, many of the vowels in an unstressed syllable are reduced to a single schwa /q/, so that they are automatically shorter. Furthermore, they can be lax or tense depending on the force of articulation. Tense vowels are produced with a tenseness of the muscles as it is the case with all diphthongs and triphthongs. Within the group of monophthongs only the long vowels /i:, u:/ are tense and all short vowels as well as the long /=:, a:/ are lax, that is, there is no muscle tenseness present. The vowel /o:/, however, is half-tense. For the description of the place of articulation of vowels the following three criteria are used: the position of the lips, the position of the velum and the position of the tongue. In the process of producing these voiced sounds the lips are rounded, spread or neutral. The velum, on the other hand, can be raised or lowered. Similarly, the tongue can also be in a high and a low position in the mouth resulting in close or open but can also be half closed or half open. Besides, not only the degree of raising describes the place of production but also the part of the tongue which is used, that is, front, middle, back depending on
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