Resources for Communication Problems

Tuesday, January 22, 2008




LB p.279 ~ p.281



The first feature of natural language to be discernible in a child’s babbling is contour of intonation. Short sound sequences are produced that may have neither any determinable meaning nor definable phoneme structure, but they can be proffered with recognizable intonation such as occurs in questions, exclamations, or affirmations. The linguistic development of utterances does not seem to begin by a composition of individual, independently movable items but as a whole tonal pattern. With further development, this whole becomes differentiated into component parts; primitive phonemes appear which consist of very large classes of sounds that contrast with each other. R. Jakobson (1942) was the first to point this out clearly.

Such development seems reasonable enough if we consider the mechanisms of sound-making in man. The vocal tract is an instrument in which a dozen or more (the number is somewhat arbitrary) different adjustments may be made. A given speech sound results from selecting just one set of adjustment. During the prelanguage stage, movements are made erratically, and thus the ever-changing quality of the sounds is like the flux of patterns in a kaleidoscope. Gradually the child gains control over the fine execution of these movements, apparently over the laryngeal adjustments first, although there seems to be considerable individual variation in the order of these developmental events.

Perceptually, the child reacts also to whole patterns rather than to small segments, and so the intonation pattern of a sentence is the more immediate input rather than individual phonemes. Order is introduced into the uncontrolled variation of sound-producing movements by a succession of refinements in skills in making various adjustments and combinations of adjustments. The mass of random sounds begin to be lined up into some fundamental classes that contrast with one another in terms of articulatory mechanisms, roughly corresponding to some of the distinctive features described by Jakobson, Fant and Halle (1963). If the baby has control over glottal and labial adjustments, he might go through a stage of four primitive phonemes as illustrated in Table 7.1.

There is little regularity from child to child in the order of emergence of specific functional phoneme-units. The example of Table 7.1 is quite academic; in fact, it is doubtful whether the distinction between voiced and unvoiced labials is

TABLE 7.1 Example of a Primitice Phoneme Repertoire -------------------------------voice------------

Present Absent ------------------------------------------------

Lips moved /b/-type /p/-type


sounds sounds


Lips held steady Vowel



actually ever made at the first stage. The two cells to the right may, at first, be merged or, conversely some tongue movements may add a third dimension right from the beginning of the development of language-like phonology. The important point is that the first words are not composed of acoustically invariant speech sounds. Instead there are equivalence classes of sounds, and each class functions as a primitive phoneme. The actual sound that is uttered at a specific instant is merely one of many possible sounds out of its given class.

The structure of contrasting sound-classes becomes more and more complex, and the differentiation takes place along articulatory dimensions until the complete distinctive feature matrix is established. Although it is true that the development is one of gradual phoneme-differentiation, it does not follow that the child only learns the distinctions that are phonemic in the language surrounding him. There are many phonetic niceties, styles, or mannerisms that are also acquired and that are irrelevant to the phonemic structure. Interestingly enough, these are usually late developments and may still be in a process of formation at eight or ten years of age.

(2) Primitive one-word utterances

Between the twelfth and eighteenth months the toddler is heard to utter unmistakable single words. There is evidence that at first these words serve quite a different function from that of mature speech. The difference is on all levels: phonological, syntactic, and semantic. The acoustic shape is merely a crude replica of the adult word, and it is only by means of our capacity to see pattern similarities that we can recognize the child’s word. This is common enough knowledge. But perhaps it has not been stressed sufficiently that it is not merely the adult who must be able to equate the child’s utterance to an English word; the child must have similar skills in pattern recognition and equation. For almost a whole year children are satisfied with general pattern similarity and dispense. so to speak, with segment by segment phonetic identity. Surely this has to do with their initial clumsiness and thus with maturational factors.

If this were not so, we might expect that many children would choose a different strategy toward language acquisition, namely, first to perfect their phonetic skills and only when they can reproduce a word with phonetic perfection, go on with syntax and semantics. This is what parrots do and, in fact, it is the usual strategy if teachers who want to train nonspeaking children (the related or the deaf) or animals to speak. It is also the strategy that most adults adopt in learning or teaching a second language. Therefore, the infant’s initial lack of concern for phonetic accuracy is by no means a trivial or logically necessary phenomenon. It points to a fundamental principle in language acquisition: what is acquired are patterns and structure, not constituent elements.

There are also dramatic deviations in the realm of semantics during the firs t stage of single words. This is true of reference as well as of meaning. At the beginning, a word such as daddy covers a different and wider range of objects than later. There is overgeneralization. However, ay no time does the multitude of reference relationships and the multilevel overlap of synonymy, homonymy, metonymy or the names of particulars as against the names of generalities, of aspects, qualities or objects to which the language-learning child is exposed from the beginning cause a chaotic se of words. The reference classes of objects in the beginner’s language are merely less differentiated than in adult language, but from the start there is something which we might call an “understandable logic” to the word-object relationship. It is as if the child did in principle the same as adults do, only on a more general level.

It has already been pointed out that meaning is intimately related to syntax, because the meaning of the sentence is never equivalent to an unordered summation of the reference of words contained in the sentence.

A short elaboration on a certain aspect of the grammatical structure of adult utterances is necessary here. Is it correct to say that the unit of discourse is the sentence? Two objections are often raised in this connection. First, in adult speech we frequently hear single words uttered; in what respect are these sentences? Second, the transcripts of conversations always show drastic infringements upon grammar; can we call these distortions “sentences”?









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