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Review of  Patterns in Child Phonology

Reviewer: Britta Lintfert
Book Title: Patterns in Child Phonology
Book Author: Wyn Johnson Paula Reimers
Publisher: Edinburgh University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Phonology
Issue Number: 22.545

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AUTHORS: Wyn Johnson; Paula Reimers
TITLE: Patterns in Child Phonology
PUBLISHER: Edinburgh University Press
YEAR: 2010

Britta Lintfert, Institute of Natural Language Processing, University of
Stuttgart, Germany


Johnson's and Reimers' textbook is an advanced introduction to non-disordered L1
phonological acquisition. While new research is presented in the book, it gives
a thorough overview of a range of cross-linguistic phenomena from phonological
acquisition and discusses data from perception studies, including analyses of
non-grammatical factors in children's phonological development.

In Chapter 1, ''Universal patterns'', the authors introduce different phonological
patterns found in child speech independent of the language acquired. The focus
in this chapter is on familiarizing readers with common processes observed in
child speech and also to connect these processes to processing strategies in
adult speech. According to the authors, the first step in the acquisition of
word production is reduplication. This observation is based on child data with
different language backgrounds. Utterances from children acquiring Arabic as
well as from L1 learners of Chinese indicate that reduplication is a universal
pattern in the early word stage, regardless of the ambient language. Child
reduplication is compared to reduplication found in adult languages of
Austronesian, Australia, and South Asia.

In adult language, reduplication is a morphological process with clear
grammatical function. By contrast, in child speech, reduplication is merely a
strategy to alter target words influenced by the developing production system
and is therefore considered extra-grammatical. In this sense, other processes of
simplification in child language like segmental deletion, syllable deletion, and
gliding are explained by considering children's utterances in English,
Portuguese, and Jordanian Arabic. Moreover, drawing data from adult languages
like Hawaiian and Latvian, the authors suggest that there is a weak syllable
deletion process in these languages. Further phonological processes introduced
are epenthesis, voicing changes, manner change like stopping and deaffrication.
The chapter ends with different examples of consonant harmony.

In Chapter 2, ''Strategies'', the authors aim to explain the just-introduced
processing strategies in child phonology. First, effects of consonant features
are introduced by studying cluster simplification of canonical clusters,
/s/-clusters, coda-cluster simplification, and consonant harmony. These effects
are mainly introduced based on data by two English-learning children, and are
compared to data from Dutch, Canadian French, German, and Jordanian Arabic.

For some child forms, consonant substitutions cannot be explained by the nature
of consonants. In these cases, consonant-vowel-interaction, velar fronting, and
positional variation is reported. After this broad overview of simplification
strategies in child speech, Johnsons and Reimers conclude that the differences
between the child's output and target (adult) form is systematic and
predictable. Phonological acquisition is therefore claimed to be independent of
the target language. Even though great intra- and inter-child variability exist,
the (normal) acquisition process is quick and effortless.

In Chapter 3, ''Linguistic models'', based on the 'nature or nurture' debate,
different linguistic models for explaining phonological development are
compared. As most models refer to the term 'markedness', Johnson and Reimers
first try to disentangle its different definitions. They formulate a set of six
markedness 'definitions' for evaluating /l/-vocalization based on phonetics,
acquisition, frequency of occurrence and language change. The general picture
seems to be that markedness criteria are not absolute and inconsistent.
Therefore different claims of markedness in linguistic analyses are introduced.
The first model discussed is the 'Universal order of acquisition' introduced by
Roman Jakobson. After sketching Jakobsonian markedness theory, the authors show
the difficulties with it. The main problem consists in the strict order of
acquisition, as no data has been found to support this assumption. A second
problem is Jakobson's claim that babbling is pre-linguistic and has nothing to
do with speech. Contrary to this view, acquisition data from longitudinal
studies presented in the book show similarities between phones produced in
babbling and early word forms. The authors therefore conclude that Jakobson's
markedness theory should not be considered a viable theory for explaining
language acquisition.

The next model is based on 'Natural Phonology' by Stampe. His theory of
markedness is more flexible than Jakobson's model, incorporating the concepts of
ease of perception and ease of articulation. But for Johnson and Reimers this
theory has problems in explaining non-phonetic factors influencing phonological
acquisition. For them, optimality theory (OT) offers the best markedness
constraints. In the following section of chapter 3 an optimality-theoretic
approach to phonological acquisition is introduced. By means of different data
sets, Johnson and Reimers explain sets of constraints and (minimal) violation
during acquisition mainly based on data from one child. A brief introduction to
the architecture and interpretation of OT tableaux are helpful in illustrating
the use of a constraint-based model of child phonology. The chapter concludes by
discussing the issue that most Universal Grammar models of first language
acquisition are production-based and assume that the child's underlying
representations are fully specified. To find some insights of the child's
underlying representation, perception studies are introduced in the next chapter.

Chapter 4, ''The earliest stages'', introduces studies of passive-learning
children and on the perceptual capacity of human infants. By considering several
perceptual discrimination studies of native and non-native contrasts, the
authors show that infants acquire speech passively, dynamically, and rapidly.
Based on studies of phonetic units and phonemic categories, Johnson and Reimers
further assume a biological predisposition for perceiving phonemes from all
languages. Moreover, the authors discuss the question of whether language is
species-specific or whether the perceptual development of human infants and
non-humans are comparable. As similar performances in perceptual discrimination
tasks do not provide a clear answer to this question, studies in neurophysiology
are introduced to shed light on the question 'Nature or nurture?', with which
the chapter ends. As the ability to perceive segmental contrasts is not unique
to humans, non-linguistic explanations of language acquisition have to be
additionally taken into account.

In Chapter 5, ''Non-linguistic perspectives'' in language acquisition are
introduced. In this chapter different statistical learning models based on
perception as well as some production models are discussed. First, Johnson and
Reimers review Kuhl's concept of a “Native Language Magnet” (NLM), based on
statistical properties of the input. The main claim of NLM is that language is
innately discoverable, but not innate. Johnson and Reimers consider the
influence of the input to be greater in the NLM model than in UG-based models.
Further, work on statistical learning in acquisition and experience-based
production models are introduced in this chapter. Infants indeed seem to be
sensitive to statistical distributions of sound patterns and use statistical
distributions to bootstrap the signal. By explaining the role of frequency
effects in the ambient language, the impact of linguistic input on child
patterns is shown. The production follows with a lag and depends on the
physiological development of the child which is briefly introduced. The chapter
ends by discussing sources of input.

The link between perception and production is the topic of Chapter 6, ''Towards
production''. First, the relation of the input to child output is explained by
introducing 'adult surface representation' (SR) and 'child's phonological or
underlying representation' (UR). Different assumptions about input and
underlying representations within OT are established, first, the two-lexicon
approach, and second, underspecification. The notion of underspecification is
explored using distinctive features and the child's ability to build up
phonological structure of segments, syllables and prosody based on input. During
acquisition, the acoustic and phonetic knowledge of the input language has to be
linked to meaning and concepts. Phonological representations of word forms and
syllables are based on perception and syntactic structures. With the help of
phonological knowledge these representations are bootstrapped from the signal.

After this excursion into perception, Johnson and Reimers return to the theme of
child patterns produced in the early word stage in order to identify general
patterns independent of the language input. They introduce more data on
segmental acquisition to find some common features for all children in Chapter
7, ''Patterns within patterns''. Variability within a language group and variation
within a language can be found, as well as similar patterns in the progress of
acquisition independent of the ambient language.

In Chapter 8, ''Concluding remarks'', the authors recap each chapter and conclude
that phonological patterns in children exhibit both language-specific and universal


The authors provide a data- and theory-rich overview of phonological development
in child speech. The book is well-written, and its structure is clear, based on
the 'nature or nurture' debate in child acquisition. Although the authors' main
focus lies on the word-stage, the preproduction stage of acquisition, both
perception and non-grammatical factors affecting acquisition are also taken into
account. The reader is introduced to current and earlier research in child
phonology. The cited literature is well chosen and reflects the current state of
research. Furthermore, older theoretical models are included, like Jakobson's
well known unified theory, and Stampe's Natural Phonology. Even though the
authors assert that they are being theory-neutral, a strong preference for OT as
a phonological theory explaining most of the child data can be assumed. In the
main, the book offers a comprehensive spectrum of research in all areas of
phonological development in child speech.

One potential point of criticism is the presentation of data. The authors use a
huge variety of child data mainly published in the CHILDES database or in
published sources. Readers may have difficulty reconstructing the analyses
without any assumptions about the child's age or stage of output. The authors
explain their decision not to provide reference to child data sources in Chapter
1, because they are focusing on familiarizing readers with common patterns. But,
for example, the lack of children's age in this and other sections makes it
difficult to classify the data and conclusions presented. In Appendix 1, the
data source list for Chapter 1 provides details about the child and references,
but not the child's age of production.

Another point of criticism is that there is no obvious difference in analyses
and conclusion in the data-rich Chapters 1, 2, and 7. If Chapter 1 is seen as an
introduction to different production possibilities in child speech, Chapter 2
and 7 mainly refer to the same data with the same conclusions. Both chapters
could be connected and the way from child data to phonological theory could be
explained in more detail.

Although the book provides a good overview, it is only recommended for more
advanced students and practitioners with a strong background in phonology.

Britta Lintfert is a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Stuttgart. Her research interests include phonology, acoustics, prosodic phenomena and the acquisition of prosody. Her work focuses on early language acquisition of German and the phonetics-phonology interface.

Format: Hardback
ISBN: 0748638199
ISBN-13: 9780748638192
Pages: 280
Prices: U.K. £ 75.00

Format: Paperback
ISBN: 0748638202
ISBN-13: 9780748638208
Pages: 280
Prices: U.K. £ 24.99