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Child Phonology

Summary and Keywords

Child phonology refers to virtually every phonetic and phonological phenomenon observable in the speech productions of children, including babbles. This includes qualitative and quantitative aspects of babbled utterances as well as all behaviors such as the deletion or modification of the sounds and syllables contained in the adult (target) forms that the child is trying to reproduce in his or her spoken utterances. This research is also increasingly concerned with issues in speech perception, a field of investigation that has traditionally followed its own course; it is only recently that the two fields have started to converge. The recent history of research on child phonology, the theoretical approaches and debates surrounding it, as well as the research methods and resources that have been employed to address these issues empirically, parallel the evolution of phonology, phonetics, and psycholinguistics as general fields of investigation. Child phonology contributes important observations, often organized in terms of developmental time periods, which can extend from the child’s earliest babbles to the stage when he or she masters the sounds, sound combinations, and suprasegmental properties of the ambient (target) language. Central debates within the field of child phonology concern the nature and origins of phonological representations as well as the ways in which they are acquired by children. Since the mid-1900s, the most central approaches to these questions have tended to fall on each side of the general divide between generative vs. functionalist (usage-based) approaches to phonology. Traditionally, generative approaches have embraced a universal stance on phonological primitives and their organization within hierarchical phonological representations, assumed to be innately available as part of the human language faculty. In contrast to this, functionalist approaches have utilized flatter (non-hierarchical) representational models and rejected nativist claims about the origin of phonological constructs. Since the beginning of the 1990s, this divide has been blurred significantly, both through the elaboration of constraint-based frameworks that incorporate phonetic evidence, from both speech perception and production, as part of accounts of phonological patterning, and through the formulation of emergentist approaches to phonological representation. Within this context, while controversies remain concerning the nature of phonological representations, debates are fueled by new outlooks on factors that might affect their emergence, including the types of learning mechanisms involved, the nature of the evidence available to the learner (e.g., perceptual, articulatory, and distributional), as well as the extent to which the learner can abstract away from this evidence. In parallel, recent advances in computer-assisted research methods and data availability, especially within the context of the PhonBank project, offer researchers unprecedented support for large-scale investigations of child language corpora. This combination of theoretical and methodological advances provides new and fertile grounds for research on child phonology and related implications for phonological theory.

Keywords: phonology, phonetics, development, acquisition, representation, perception, articulation, theory, PhonBank, Phon

1. Recent History

Observations about child language development have been on the minds of both lay and scholarly thinkers for millennia. Since the turn of the 1900s, work in this area began to appear more steadily within the scholarly literature. Historical coverage here is limited to this period until present days. The contemporary issues and proposals that have influenced the field since the turn of the 21st century are covered in a topic-oriented discussion.

Early observations about child phonology are available in a handful of documents published in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (e.g., Deville, 1891; Leopold, 1939, 1947; Lewis, 1936; Piaget, 1955; Templin, 1957; Velten, 1943). These works describe the development of phonological abilities by monolingual learners of English (Lewis), French (Deville, Piaget), and German (Velten), as well as by an English-German bilingual child (Leopold). With the exception of the latter, which focuses on relationships between the child’s two languages, these pioneer works pay little attention to issues concerning general vs. language-specific patterns of development. However, these early diary studies of phonological development offer relatively systematic descriptions of child phonological patterns, thereby providing a preliminary basis for the empirical study of how children come to master the various components of their target phonological systems. These studies also reveal many intriguing patterns, not directly predictable from the properties of these target systems, which inspired the formulation of fundamental questions for this then-burgeoning field of investigation.

Questions pertaining to language universality vs. language specificity, central to the formulation of virtually all modern theories of phonology and phonological development, took center stage with the rise of structuralism, in particular through the seminal work by Nicolai Trubetzkoy and Roman Jakobson on linguistic universals within the context of the Prague Linguistic Circle. Concerning child phonology, this culminated in the publication of Kindersprache, Aphasie und allgemeine Lautgesetze (Jakobson, 1941), a thought-provoking monograph that remains influential to this day. While Kindersprache explicitly sets child phonology at the center of the universalist perspective explored within the Prague Circle, child phonology remained a relatively marginal topic of interest for yet another few decades. The leading trend at the time was within the realm of behaviorist theories, which emphasized the properties of the environment as the driving factor behind language (and phonological) development. Perhaps the clearest example of this concerns the role that usage frequency, either in perception or production, plays in determining the shape of phonological representations and their processing, in both child and adult phonological systems. Controversies about the exact role of frequency, as a determining or merely influencing factor, have continued to flare up in theoretical debates to this day.

Jakobson’s monograph, alongside all early observations challenging purely behaviorist explanations of phonological patterns, provides a basis for the ensuing cognitive revolution of the 1950s, including the rise of Chomsky’s theory of Generative Grammar (Chomsky, 1957) within linguistics. Embracing typological universals as a central window into the human linguistic competence, generative phonologists of the time focused on properties generally shared by adult languages as a primary source of empirical evidence for theory building. This was in part due to methodological limitations affecting research at the time (e.g., the absence of convenient means for data recording), which were compounded by the challenging nature of child language, whose properties are often variable or fleeting; there was indeed a general sense that studies of child language were “much too complex to be undertaken in a meaningful way” (Chomsky & Halle, 1968, p. 331).

However, the translation of Kindersprache into English (as Child Language, Aphasia, and Phonological Universals), published in 1968, served as a catalyst for numerous lines of inquiry into child phonology. By that time, generative linguistics was increasingly influential, fueling hotly debated controversies (e.g., about the hypothesized universality and related innateness of phonological features), which, in turn, spurred an interest in empirical research beyond the confines of adult phonology. Works by Stampe (1969, 1972), Menn (1971, 1976, 1978), Moskowitz (1971), Waterson (1971), Smith (1973), Braine (1974, 1976), Ingram (1974a, 1974b, 1976), Ferguson and Farwell (1975), Cruttenden (1976, 1978), Kiparsky and Menn (1977), and Priestly (1977), inter alia, all contributed both developmental data and analyses engaging with then-current theoretical frameworks, from either functionalist or generativist standpoints. Kindersprache, for its emphasis on universal tendencies observed across a range of phonological properties and behaviors, for example about the composition of phonological inventories and related predictions about their acquisition, also set the stage for larger-scale, cross-linguistic investigations of child language (e.g., Ferguson, 1964) as well as the establishment within the scholarly literature of significant observations about early phonological systems. An example of this is the ‘fis’ phenomenon (Berko & Brown, 1960), whereby English-learning children may produce ‘fis’ for ‘fish’ while at the same time rejecting ‘fis’ as an actual pronunciation for ‘fish.’ This and similar phenomena, which suggest a relative disconnect between speech perception and production, have since remained at the center of theoretical exploration. These early works also raised a number of questions about the validity of child phonology for phonological theory, given seemingly paradoxical interplays between production patterns (the so-called ‘chain-shift’ patterns), which too have remained at the center of important debates within the literature all the way to current times (e.g., Braine, 1976; Goad, 2006; Hale & Reiss, 1998, 2008; Ingram, 1974b; Macken, 1980; Priestly, 1977; Rose, 2009; Dinnsen, Green, Gierut, & Morrisette, 2011; Rose & Inkelas, 2011; Smith, 1973; Smolensky, 1996).

Another striking property of these early works concerns the level of importance they attribute to particular aspects of empirical descriptions. While tenants of strict, rule-based formalisms, for example within the generative or the natural phonology frameworks, tended to focus on systematic aspects of child phonology (or lack thereof), typically encoded in terms of phonological rules (e.g., Menn, 1971; Smith, 1973; Stampe, 1969), works framed in more functionalist approaches rather emphasized more variable or idiosyncratic characteristics of the same data, which posed as many challenges to rule-based formalism (e.g., Ferguson & Farwell, 1975; Waterson, 1971) (see Anderson, 1985 for a critical discussion.). This difference in empirical focus also yielded a relative degree of thematic isolation, whereby the generative and functionalist literature began to evolve in relative independence of one another, each emphasizing its own areas of empirical concern, and their implications for the theory at hand (e.g., Menn, Schmidt, & Nicholas, 2013 for a recent discussion).

The emergence of multilinear models of phonology, toward the latter part of the 1970s (Goldsmith, 1976; Kahn, 1976), and through the 1980s (McCarthy & Prince, 1986; Selkirk, 1982), with its multiple and hierarchically organized levels of segmental and prosodic representational units, called for as many investigations of the development of these constructs in child phonology, which culminated in influential works by, for example, Spencer (1986), Fikkert (1994), Levelt (1994), Demuth (1995), Demuth and Fee (1995) (see also Almeida, 2011; Barlow, 1997; Freitas, 1997; Rose, 2000 for more recent analyses). In parallel, researchers began to study the potential role of the child’s developing lexicon in shaping phonological development, including the works by Benedict (1979), Macken (1980), Menn (1983), Stoel-Gammon and Cooper (1984), and Menn and Matthei (1992). While the role of the lexicon remained more or less tangential to generative accounts of phonological development, it was incorporated in many functionalist analyses, most significantly concerning selection and avoidance strategies. In a nutshell, these strategies refer to observed tendencies by toddlers to attempt (select), in their early speech productions, words that correspond to a phonologically identifiable subset of the words they comprehend, while avoiding words that contain particular types of syllables, sounds, or sound combinations (Ferguson & Farwell, 1975; Leonard, Schwartz, Morris, & Chapman, 1981; Schwartz & Leonard, 1982; Stoel-Gammon & Cooper, 1984). This phenomenon, observed predominantly in data from children whose expressive vocabulary is less than 50 or 100 words, points to a certain degree of awareness, on the child’s part, of his or her phonological productive abilities (see, e.g., Vihman, 2014, for a recent discussion). The degree of attention devoted to this phenomenon within the literature further highlights the difference in empirical focus mentioned previously: while works within the functionalist tradition continued to focus predominantly on the babbling and early word production periods (e.g., Vihman, Ferguson, & Elbert, 1986; Davis & MacNeilage, 1995; MacNeilage & Davis, 1990a, 1990b), in line with the influential methodology set by Ferguson and Farwell, 1975, the generative literature tradition continued to address data from older learners, also likely to display more stable patterns, while it remained relatively noncommittal toward the properties of babbling or earliest word productions, including the patterns of selection and avoidance noted previously.

Much of this began to change as of the mid-1990s, through a period marked by many revolutions within phonological theory. The rise of constraint-based approaches to phonology, in particular Optimality Theory (McCarthy & Prince, 1993; Prince & Smolensky, 2004) and Harmonic Grammar (Legendre, Miyata, & Smolensky, 1990; Pater, 2009; Smolensky & Legendre, 2006), brought to the field a healthy number of theoretical reconsiderations about the nature of phonological systems and their origins. For example, instead of viewing patterns of phonological production as the outcome of production rules (or strategies) transforming an adult-like input into a child output form, work in this area considers child speech patterns as the outcomes of constraints affecting the child’s perception, analysis, or production of given phonological units (e.g., Gnanadesikan, 2004; Pater, 1997; Goad & Rose, 2004; Fikkert & Levelt, 2008). This work led to a reconsideration of fundamental issues ranging from the nature of early phonological representations to how the child’s phonological system of abstract representations interacts with sensorimotor areas of speech perception and production. In parallel to this was also a resurgence of interest in child phonology as a topic of investigation within the generative literature, which began with the influential works on segmental and prosodic development by Levelt (1994) and Fikkert (1994), respectively. These works spurred several lines of investigation about both the acquisition of phonological representations and, given the theoretical shift that happened in parallel, the effect of constraints on the expression of these representations in child productions (Barlow, 1997; Beers, 1996; Bernhardt & Stemberger, 1998; Dinnsen, 1996; Dinnsen, Green, Morrisette, & Gierut, 2011; Freitas, 1997; Gnanadesikan, 2004; Goad, 1996, 1997; Goad & Brannen, 2003; Goad & Rose, 2004; Levelt & van Oostendorp, 2007; McAllister Byun, 2009; Ota, 1999; Pater, 1997; Rose, 2000, 2003; Dos Santos, 2007; Smolensky, 1996; Tessier, 2015; Veer, 2015; Velleman, 1996).

During the same period, functionalist approaches also underwent a series of ground-shaking transformations, centered on the formulation of exemplar-based models of phonology (e.g., Johnson, 1997; Johnson & Mullennix, 1997; Pisoni, 1997), combined with a revived emphasis on whole-word phonology (Bybee, 2001; Vihman, 2014; Vihman & Velleman, 2000). These works, in opposition to much of the formalism developed within generative phonology, focused primarily on how input-driven factors such as repetition, frequency, and salience might affect the child’s memorization and processing of word forms (Al-Tamimi & Khattab, 2015; Beckman & Edwards, 2000; Edwards, Beckman, & Munson, 2015; Khattab & Al-Tamimi, 2013; Li, Munson, Edwards, Yoneyama, & Hall, 2011; Munson, Edwards, & Beckman, 2005; Ota & Green, 2013), in combination with the child’s own abilities (or lack thereof) in the area of phonological production (e.g., Menn, Schmidt, & Nicholas, 2009; Menn et al., 2013; Vihman, 2014; Vihman & Keren-Portnoy, 2013).

While staunch tenants of the two main traditional approaches continue to evolve in relative parallel, each keeping with their own side of the theoretical divide, innovative proposals formulated in recent years offer more nuanced perspectives on foundational issues, many of which bridge divides between formalist vs. functionalist approaches to these issues. Below are summarized some of the most central debates that have defined and continue to influence the evolution of child phonology as a field of theoretical inquiry. Throughout this discussion, the focus is primarily on research on phonological production, with occasional mentions of research on speech perception, which has followed its own evolution, and provided fascinating insight into issues in phonological representation since the early 1970s. Important current trends call for further integration between research on production and perception, which promises further advances in our understanding of child phonology, and of the nature of phonological systems more generally.

2. Theoretical Debates

As mentioned a number of times already, child phonology is relevant to two particular domains of theoretical investigation. The first is connected to the nature vs. nurture debate that has taken place in several areas of cognitive science, including philosophy (e.g., John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding, circa 1690), psychology (e.g., concerning the question of heritability; Bouchard, 1998), and linguistics, in particular since Chomsky (1957). The second concerns the nature of phonological representations which, irrespective of their origins, relate to the level of generalization that child language learners can attain based on the properties of the ambient signal. While the different theories described below diverge from one another in many respects, they also make a number of similar empirical predictions. For example, typologically frequent units, which can be seen as universally unmarked, also tend to be simple structurally and, from a usage perspective, to occur frequently in all areas of speech perception and production. The early development of these units (e.g., CV syllables), or their behaviors as substitutes for otherwise more marked, complex, or infrequent units, can thus be interpreted in very different ways. As the field progresses on experimental and observational research methods, it will allow new observations about different aspects of phonological behavior, many of which may also prove useful to disentangle aspects of this debate.

2.1 Nature vs. Nurture, and the Initial State

The question of what, or how much, of the human linguistic competence is innate continues to represent the biggest area of divergence between the main approaches summarized previously. In many discussions, this question is also intertwined with interpretations of the continuity assumption (Macnamara, 1982; Pinker, 1984), according to which the nature of the child’s linguistic systems should not change through development.

Tenants of the nativist viewpoint claim that phonological primitives (e.g., phonological units, or constraints within OT grammars) must be natively available in order to kick-start the development process. In order to explain evident gaps between the sophisticated level of competence that nativism entails, and children’s actual abilities in production during their first few years of like, nativist approaches explore different avenues. For example, Hale and Reiss (1998, 2008) emphasize performance issues, which they consider to be outside the domain of the human grammatical (phonological) system. Within recent formulations of Natural Phonology (e.g., Donegan & Stampe, 2009), innate rules or constraints, which formally encode mappings between phonological representations and their phonetic expressions, constitute the source of the production patterns observed in child phonology. As children prune the universal set of mappings down to those required for the ambient language, they gradually eliminate the expressions of these mappings from their phonology. Within constraint-based frameworks, the ranking (or relative weight) of phonological constraints are taken as the source of production patterns deviating from the target (Barlow, 1997; Bernhardt & Stemberger, 1998; Dinnsen, Green, Morrisette, & Gierut, 2011; Fikkert & Levelt, 2008; Gnanadesikan, 2004; Pater, 1997; Smolensky, 1996). Finally, proponents of the neo-Jakobsonian view of phonology claim that as universal phonological features become available to the child’s system, co-occurrence constraints may prevent the child from combining these features in phonological outputs (Levelt & van Oostendorp, 2007; Veer, 2015). Each of these proposals also take as a starting point the assumption that children’s lexical representations are adult-like, in the tradition of Smith’s (1973) modulo perceptual factors (Macken, 1980).

The nativist hypothesis is challenged in virtually every formulation of the alternative viewpoint, that phonological units emerge within lexical representations as outcomes of the learning process (e.g., Pierrehumbert, 2003). Under this view, only the child’s perceptual abilities and learning mechanisms are considered innate, while categories in both perception and production are acquired through usage. In exemplar-based models of representation, every occurrence of a given unit in perception or production is assumed to leave a trace (referred to as an ‘exemplar’) in memory. Similar occurrences of these sensorimotor events cluster up in memory, forming more or less diffuse representational clouds, whose relative size and density may influence the speaker’s future use of these units (e.g., Bybee, 2001; Sosa & Stoel-Gammon, 2006; Sosa & Bybee, 2008). In spite of the conceptual simplicity of exemplar models, many issues remain controversial, for example concerning the degree of abstraction that the learner can extract from representational clouds of memorized exemplars (e.g., Pierrehumbert, 2003; Munson, Edwards, & Beckman, 2011). Related debates involve the relative importance of input factors such as usage frequency and salience in shaping the child’s phonological abilities, how the segmental, prosodic, and distributional properties of the adult language, including other factors such as morpho-phonological alternations, might influence both perception and production, as well as how inherent learning biases may affect phonological development (e.g., Altvater-Mackensen & Fikkert, 2015; Feest, 2007; Fikkert, 2005; Kager, Feest, Fikkert, Kerkhoff, & Zamuner, 2007; Zamuner, Kerkhoff, & Fikkert, 2012). Coming back to the continuity assumption, the emergentist view agrees that basic cognitive mechanisms driving phonological development and later productions are innate, in that they are inherent to the cognitive and sensorimotor systems of human beings. It however challenges the general notion of linguistic primitives such as innate phonological features, structures, rules, or constraints. Also controversial is the level of phonological abstraction that the learner can reach, and make use of, both across the developmental period and later in life.

2.2 Abstraction within Phonological Representations

In addition to the nature vs. nurture debate, the degree to which learners can, and do, abstract away from the signal, remains one of the most central points of contention between contemporary approaches to child phonology. Usage-based approaches embrace a generally wysiwyg (what-you-see-is-what-you-get) approach to the lexicon. In the most radical interpretations of this view, abstract categories such as the phonological feature or prosodic domains such as the stress foot play no formal role; these constructs are seen as epiphenomenal, more useful to the linguistic description of their shapes and behaviors than relevant to the speaker’s system of linguistic representations and processing. Words or even larger units are thus memorized as whole units (often referred to as prosodic templates, in the tradition of Waterson, 1971, 1987), and it is the learner’s articulatory abilities and limitations that define the range of the representational detail allowed within the word template. There are thus no rules or constraints filtering out a phonological output from a given input (Vihman, 2014; Vihman & Croft, 2007, drawing heavily on Bybee, 2001). This model also implies that perceptual abilities are influenced by issues in speech articulation, adding to controversies about the relationship between phonological perception and production.

The wysiwyg view is challenged by approaches that embrace the types of categories described within representational models of phonology harking all the way back to the Prague Circle concerning phonological features, but also emphasizing the dual nature of these units as pairings between perceptual and articulatory dimensions of speech (Halle & Stevens, 1959; Stevens, 1972; Stevens & Keyser, 2010). The key property of these pairings is that they allow for perceptually defined lexical units to be qualitatively different from their corresponding forms in production. This view of phonological representations has been recently revisited in a series of recent proposals that focus on the child’s learning and fine-tuning of perceptual-articulatory pairings (Lin & Mielke, 2008; McAllister Byun, 2012; McAllister Byun, Inkelas, & Rose 2016; Menn, Schmidt, & Nicholas, 2009, 2013; Menn & Vihman, 2011; Mielke, 2008; Munson et al., 2011; Rose, 2014). Particular mechanics of each of these proposals set aside, they all share the basic hypothesis that language learners must develop categories in perception and representationally match them with the articulatory events (gestures, timings) required to reproduce these perceived categories in spoken forms.

From a methodological standpoint, this debate also highlights some of the traditional differences in empirical focus discussed previously. The most central observations brought in support for whole-word approaches emphasize patterns observed in late babbling and the earliest stages of word production, a developmental period where noticeable levels of variability across different productions suggest a relatively low level of representational detail within phonological representations (Vihman, 2014; Vihman & Croft, 2007; Vihman, DePaolis, & Keren-Portnoy, 2014). In contrast to this, analyses that promote smaller-size units such as the phonological feature typically consider data from later stages in phonological development, at which the learner’s productions are more systematic, suggestive of a higher level of representational sophistication (Menn et al., 2009, 2013; Menn & Vihman, 2011; Munson et al., 2011; Rose, 2014). Research on infant speech perception also calls into question some of the arguments about holistic, coarse-grained representations, showing that perceptual representations are in fact relatively refined already at the turn of the first year of life (e.g., Swingley & Aslin, 2000; Yoshida, Fennell, Swingley, & Werker, 2009). Together, the general observations from this body of literature suggest a view of phonology whereby early representational units may be coarser or partially analyzed (or, at times, mis-analyzed) by the learner, whose system becomes increasingly more finely analyzed and attuned to the properties of the target system during later stages of phonological production. This research also suggests different timelines for perceptual vs. articulatory areas of development, and poses important questions concerning the relationships that might exist between these two components of child phonological systems across the developmental period.

3. Current and Emerging Trends

Building on its rich background and given its far-reaching implications, the field of research on child phonology has gradually taken its place as a centrally relevant field of linguistic investigation, with recently formulated proposals suggesting a certain degree of theoretical convergence. While some analyses remain firmly anchored in more traditional versions of the generativist and functionalist approaches (e.g., Bybee, 2001; Dinnsen & Gierut, 2008; Hale & Reiss, 2008; Veer, 2015; Vihman & Croft, 2007), both the types of observations considered in recently proposed models of child language as well as analyses formulated to account for these observations increasingly straddle traditional divides within the theoretical field. These analyses also incorporate child phonology not as a problem on its own but in the larger context of adult phonology and its evolution through an individual’s lifetime (e.g., McAllister Byun, Inkelas, & Rose, 2016; Menn, Schmidt, & Nicholas, 2013; Munson, Edwards, & Beckman, 2011; Pierrehumbert, 2003). Future research will help in testing the validity of these hybrid approaches, the formulation of which is informed by the ever-growing body of literature on infant speech perception (which itself includes work on categorization as well as pattern and word learning, among many other topics) as well as by increasingly refined, computer-assisted analyses of child language data.

This emerging trend is also in line with recent research pertaining to the nature vs. nurture dichotomy as well as to the issue of abstractness in phonological representation. Over the past decade, an increasingly consensual—although still controversial—view is that while abstract phonological units are universally relevant to the description of phonological systems and their acquisition, these units are not innately available to the learner; they must be acquired based on language-specific evidence, the nature of which ranges from phonetic (acoustic and articulatory) properties of speech sounds to their distribution, functional contrastiveness, and interaction with other components of the target linguistic system, for example in the context of morpho-phonological alternations (e.g., Cowper & Hall, 2014; Dresher, 2014, from a formal standpoint).

This theoretical viewpoint is now taking center-stage in emergent models of phonological representations, for example within the Linked-Attractor and the A-map models of phonological development (McAllister Byun et al., 2016; Menn et al., 2009, 2013). While they differ in their respective implementation, these two models embrace at their core a set of theoretical considerations, in particular about the need for phonological abstraction in phonological representation, which they address in light of perceptual and articulatory components of the speech chain. These new models also mirror recent advances in the area of infant speech perception, in particular within the PRIMIR framework (Processing Rich Information from Multi-dimensional Interactive Representations; Curtin, Byers-Heinlein, & Werker, 2011; Werker & Curtin, 2005; see also Zamuner, 2009). As mentioned previously, research on infant speech perception has become a field of its own since the early 1970s (e.g., Eimas, Siqueland, Jusczyk, & Vigorito, 1971). While much of its research is influenced by traditional questions in phonology (e.g., Jusczyk, Luce, & Charles-Luce, 1994), it is also heavily influenced by models and methods developed within the fields of behavioral and mathematical psychology, and concerned with a range of questions that only partially overlaps with those typically pursued by phonological lines of investigation. For example, issues in word segmentation, the identification of word units within the speech stream, which are central to the building of the lexicon (e.g., Johnson, 2016 for a recent summary), and the levels at which different-size units can be processed in perception, are at the center of many debates and related models, including PRIMIR. In contrast to this, word segmentation is only tangential to phonological analyses of production data.

Emerging from research on infant speech perception is a wealth of knowledge that, on the one hand, provides validation for many of the units proposed within phonological descriptions, from features (e.g., White & Morgan, 2008) to larger units such as the prosodic word or phrase (e.g., Gerken, 1996). On the other hand, this research poses challenges to theories of phonology concerning their psychological validity and related applicability in the real world. Similarly, psycholinguistic models of speech perception, while revealing of many aspects of how children may analyze the phonetic evidence available to them, also face challenges concerning their applicability (and scalability) to real-life learning contexts, which are typically much more complex than what is currently represented within experimental or computational learning data (e.g., Johnson & Tyler, 2010; see also Kwisthout, Wareham, & van Rooij, 2011 from the perspective of computational modeling). While the jury is still out on many central aspects of these debates, the empirical research they compel will continue to reveal how the multiple dimensions of phonological systems are acquired and function as part of the human language faculty and its relationships to articulatory, perceptual, and general cognitive abilities.

These recent theoretical advances also form the basis for new questions for empirical research, calling for methods that go beyond traditional data compilations based on phonetically transcribed data corpora. For example, in addition to the further integration of linguistic and psycholinguist theories of phonology and phonological development, these advances also call for the incorporation of data on the content and structure of the child’s developing lexicon (e.g., Storkel, 2006) as well as more in-depth characterizations of child language data through systematic acoustic measurements (e.g., Li, Munson, Edwards, Yoneyama, & Hall, 2011). It is in this context that the PhonBank database and the Phon software program were developed in the early 21st century.

4. Methodological Advances: PhonBank and Phon

Corpus-based approaches to language acquisition have a long history, which centers primarily on the Child Language Data Exchange System (CHILDES), which, since the early 1980s, has provided researchers and clinicians with a host of data corpora and tools for the lexical, morphological, and syntactic analysis of these data (MacWhinney, 2000). The computer-assisted methods developed within CHILDES, as well as the culture this project fostered in the area of data sharing, have been among the most significant forces behind research advances in the field. Until recently, however, very few computer systems were available for the study of child phonetics and phonology, and access to these limited systems was further limited by their reliance on proprietary technologies and high user license fees (Rose & MacWhinney, 2014; Rose & Stoel-Gammon, 2015). Compounding this problem was a dearth of publicly available data sets ready for analysis in any of the available systems, with the exception of a few precursor corpora published either on CHILDES (e.g., English-Cruttenden and Dutch-CLPF) or as textual appendices to monographs (e.g., Smith, 1973). This situation started to change for the better in 2006 with the inception of the PhonBank project (MacWhinney & Rose, 2008). Supported by a large consortium of researchers and collaborators, PhonBank addresses two inter-related needs: (1) data availability, through a shared database for the study of phonology, phonological development, and speech disorders (; and (2) data analysis, through the development of Phon, a specialized software program for the building and analysis of phonological corpora.

PhonBank currently incorporates data from nearly 200 case studies of child learners documenting over 20 languages and language learning situations (including monolingual, bilingual, and clinical). These corpora are fully formatted for analysis within Phon. Phon brings together two of the most important areas of empirical investigation in the area of child phonology: a database system for transcript-based analyses of phonological data, combined with functions for acoustic analysis, powered through the integration of Praat libraries. Phon works on all major operating systems and is freely available to the community as open-source software.

In the area of corpus transcription and annotation, Phon supports, among other facilities, the time-alignment of data transcripts to (audio/video) media files; data transcription and annotation, including phonetic transcription based on all symbols and diacritics of the IPA and built-in dictionaries of pronounced forms in several languages; general as well as context-specific annotation of particular domains for analysis (e.g., utterances; phrases; clitic groups; words; syllables and syllable positions); and, whenever relevant, phone-by-phone alignment between model (e.g., citation-form) transcriptions and their actual renditions by the recorded participants. Phon also incorporates automatic algorithms for the annotation of syllable positions as well as for phone-by-phone alignments between model (target) and actual (produced) IPA forms.

In the area of speech acoustics, Phon facilitates the databasing and management of Praat TextGrids files, something particularly useful for large-scale studies. Phon supports corpus-wide TextGrid generation based on data records and facilitates the extraction of acoustic measurement data. Phon includes built-in scripts for the measurement of various acoustic parameters (e.g., duration, pitch, intensity, formant frequency), each of which can be fine-tuned via a graphical user interface enabling the researcher to specify Praat settings on the fly (e.g., frequency ranges for pitch or formants), without any need to directly alter Praat scripts.

All Phon functions are accessible through a user-friendly graphical interface. Databases managed within Phon can also be queried using a search system that integrates the most central concepts relevant to research in phonology, including descriptive phonological features, syllable constituents (e.g., syllable onset, coda), syllable types (e.g., open, closed), stress, and so on. Using these reference units, researchers and students can obtain measures of productivity and accuracy, or extract acoustic measurements for particular words, syllables, phones, and phonological features, or combinations of such units. Taking velar fronting as an example, a pattern by which target velar consonants (e.g., [k, ɡ]) are produced as coronals ([t, d]), one can study the overall frequency of occurrence of each phone in both target and actual forms, describe velar-coronal substitutions across positions within the syllable, word, or utterance, and also extract acoustic measurements relevant to this substitution (e.g., burst frequency or voice-onset time across various segmental or prosodic contexts). The observations obtained from this work can in turn provide arguments for or against different theoretical explanations for this (or similar) phenomena (e.g., Inkelas & Rose, 2007). The rich combination of observations and measures that are now available through PhonBank and Phon make possible studies that are both larger in scale and descriptively more refined than what was humanly possible in the early 2000s.

PhonBank data can also be converted for use in CLAN, the main software program for the analysis of CHILDES data, and can be combined with other useful resources such as the MacArthur-Bates Communicative Development Inventories (MB-CDI;; Fenson et al., 2007) in order to address issues in phonological development in light of other components of the child’s system, for example at the level of morphological or syntactic analysis (e.g., Crago & Allen, 2001; Demuth, Patrolia, Song, & Masapollo, 2011; Kerkhoff, 2007; MacWhinney, 1978; Rose & Brittain, 2011) and lexical development (e.g., Edwards, Beckman, & Munson, 2004; Ota & Green, 2013; Stoel-Gammon, 2011).

Through the recent empirical and methodological advances provided by the PhonBank project, researchers in phonology and child language are now better equipped than ever to engage with the testing and further refinement of current models of child phonological development.

Further Reading

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        Bernhardt, B. H., & Stemberger, J. P. (1998). Handbook of phonological development from the perspective of constraint-based nonlinear phonology. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.Find this resource:

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