Transitions to first words

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“Radical” templatic phonology is a template-based approach to segmental phonological representation. The central hypothesis is that the segmental phonological structure of words is represented as language-specific phonotactic templates, in the sense used in the developmental literature. Template-based organization of the early lexicon has been identified in children acquiring several different languages. It is the result of a usage-based abstracting or “induction” process based on both babbling practice (phonetic production) and input experience with specific adult phonological patterns. The resulting templates thus constitute patterns that reconcile (or “adapt”) the model provided by target words with the child's own phonetic repertoire of syllables or word shapes — typically extending or building on the forms initially “selected” for first word production, in which adult and child forms show a close match. In adult phonology segment categories — natural classes, or features — are best defined in terms of their occurrence in positions in the templates in individual languages, not as independent universal categories. After reviewing the status of segment categories and their phonetic basis in contemporary phonological theory we present crosslinguistic evidence of pervasive variation in both phonetic realization and phonological distribution patterns, evidence that supports the template construct.
A variety of evidence, including the speech errors of normal and aphasic speakers, and the metalinguistic skills of literate individuals, demonstrates that speech has an underlying phonemic organization. However, we know little about how this organization develops in the child. The purpose of the present study was to test the hypothesis that phoneme-sized phonetic segments emerge as functional units of perceptuomotor control from the child's gradual reorganization of the gestures forming its early words or syllables. We investigated the acoustic structure of syllables produced by young children and adults. Fricative-vowel syllables spoken by 40 subjects (eight adults and eight children at each of the ages 3, 4, 5, and 7 years) were analyzed acoustically to determine how well different syllables-initial fricatives were contrasted and how strongly they were affected by vocalic context. Results indicated two independent developmental trends: The extent to which speakers differentiated between /integral of/ and /s/ increased with age, while the extent to which they coarticulated each fricative with its following vowel decreased. The results support the hypothesis that children initially organize their speech gestures over a domain at least the size of the syllable and only gradually differentiate the syllable into patterns of gestures more closely aligned with its perceived segmental components.