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2.1.2. Production of English segments and suprasegments

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Children begin to speak between eighteen and twenty-four months of age (Kaplan & Kaplan,
1971: 358). The “primitive lexical items”, that is, what sound like first words, are “the result
of the imitation of adults’ forms” (Crystal, 1970: 80). Concerning the chronology of early
vocalization, Abercrombie (1967) attests that it can be divided into several overlapping
stages. During the first six months of life, the basic form of crying goes on. At three weeks,
pseudo-cry and non-cry vocalizations appear, and they evince a greater variety of temporal
and frequency patterns than simple crying. Until the end of the first year, the latter two types
of vocalizations gradually develop into babbling and intonated vocalizations. They
increasingly sound like actual speech, with more vowel-like and consonant-like sounds on
the one hand, and more adult-like intonation patterns on the other hand. The last stage of
early vocalization, for Abercrombie, is patterned speech, occurring between nine and twelve
months. As the author puts it, this final stage corresponds to the close of the pre-linguistic
period and the onset of true speech. The question of the (dis)continuity between the stage of
babbling and the stage of actual speech may then be asked.

The literature on first production mainly deals with phonemes and phonotactics, but not
so often with prosody, which is thought to be easy to acquire. As for the production of the
first words, it is not immediately accurate and perfect, as is reminded in Johnson and
Reimers (2010: 3): “What happens when children are confronted with target forms that they
are not able to reproduce accurately is that they have a choice of not producing anything at
all or changing the forms into those that they can manage in production”. In fact, young
children simplify target words in order to match their production capacities. That is why a
certain number of recurrent processes are at work. Reduplication is one of the major steps in
the linguistic development, whatever the language; it refers to the doubling of one simple
syllable as a substitution for a more complex, polysyllabic word. A well-known French
example is the child-like word dodo for dormir (“sleep”), actually found in most dictionaries.
The simplification strategies differ from one child to another, though, since they depend on
their own production capacities. Another common process in L1 first production is
segmental deletion, implying that a segment is not realized at all – e.g. /bʊ/ instead of /bʊk/,
or the simplification of consonant clusters, e.g. friend becomes fen. Johnson and Reimers
remark that word-final deletions, and especially consonant deletions, are the most frequent
ones. The phenomenon of weak syllable deletion, viz. strong syllable retention, can be
illustrated with the example of the word banana, realized as /ˈnanə/ instead of /bəˈnɑːnə/
(idem: 8). Although English is a stress-timed language, unlike French, weak syllable deletion
occurs in early learners of any L1, including French. Finally, the modification of a phonemic
feature is widespread. This comprises the (de)voicing of a segment – e.g. /bɪk/ for /bɪg/ –, and
de-affrication – e.g. /ʃɪp/ for /tʃɪp/.

The production of English in the L1 acquisition process has some similarities with the
development of perceptual capacities. Although very few studies exist on the production of
L1 suprasegmental features by infants, prosody usually does not pose a problem to them and
is said to be acquired quite early. Yet, Watson, Grabe and Post (1998) found that perfect,
adult-like realization of English rhythm is harder and takes more time to acquire than
segments. Thanks to a cross-linguistic experiment based on both French-speaking and
English-speaking mother-and-child recordings, the authors first show that English rhythm is
acquired later, and is therefore harder to acquire, than French rhythm. But even further than
that, they observe that English rhythm is not totally acquired before segments: “Some
authors suggest that children have acquired the prosody of their mother tongue by age 1.
The results of our rhythm study do not support this claim. English children have not
acquired the rhythm of English by age 4” (idem: 34). This finding is all the more interesting
as it runs counter to the general beliefs concerning the acquisition order of English
phonological features. Thereby, even if infants are capable of producing the L1 prosody early,
through intonated vocalizations among others, the adult-like realization of it is only
complete later, indeed after the total acquisition of segments.

Psychologists and linguists underline the incredible rapidity of the L1 acquisition process.
By the age of three years, children have acquired many of the syntactic and phonological
components of their mother tongue. Apart from segmental difficulties, prosody is considered
to be acquired early, which may be why it is hardly studied by L1 acquisition researchers.
However, given the experiment conducted by Watson, Grabe and Post (1998), one may
wonder about not only the difficulty in acquiring suprasegmental aspects of a language, but
also their role and function with respect to segments. Further research on the acquisition of
L1 prosody and comparative studies on L1 segmental and suprasegmental features should
be done.

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