Language acquisition is a complex and gradual process for children. The process works on two levels. Part of it is innate, and part is learned. As they advance developmentally, children absorb what they hear in their interactions with others, especially in their home environments. Phonological development is a gradual process during which speech patterns are first reproduced, and then eventually acquired. It is normal for mistakes, or phonological deviations, to be made during this process.
Since young children are still developing their sound systems, their speech can at times be difficult to understand. Anyone who has tried to communicate with small children will have experienced this at some point. This is particularly true in very young children, specifically those under the age of five, since they have not yet mastered the ability to organize sound systems in the same way that adults do.
In the acquisition of language, children progress at different developmental levels. Phonological processes will vary from child to child, although the differences become less pronounced approximately around the age of five years. This paper examines the language acquisition of two children, A and G, who are each two years old. Particular emphasis will be placed on their strategies for simplifying word-initial s+ consonant clusters. In addition, it will discuss noted deviations from adult forms, suggesting possible explanations to account for those deviations.
Word-initial s+ consonant clusters are complex segments. Roca and Johnson explain that in the English language, possible combinations of onset are governed by phonological constraints. Cluster simplification is one strategy used by young children to simplify word-initial /s/ clusters. Consonant clusters are described as groups of two or three consonants that occur in a sequence. Cluster simplification, then, refers to the process that takes place when the speaker omits part of the cluster. In the example of [wip] and ‘sleep’, Child A exhibits a tendency towards cluster reduction, since the /s/ has been deleted in articulation of the word 'sleep'. Cluster simplification also appears in Child G's list, with [sΙp ] and ‘slip’. Another strategy that is used is the gliding of liquids, which can be seen again in the example of [wip] and ‘sleep’ in A's list. The deviation is demonstrated here by the fact that the /l/ has been replaced with a /w/ sound.
'Snake' [ŋeΙk] is an example of a word-initial /s/ plus a nasal cluster. This word was problematic for A. In a similar vein, Child G seemed to have difficulty with the word 'snow'. Another strategy employed by Child G is that of 'coalescence', as evidenced by the word 'smoke' [fok]. In this case we can see that the features of two consonants are merged into a single consonant. Child A uses this strategy as well, as we can see the words 'stop' [bɒp] and 'sport' [bɔt]. In the case of 'spoon' [bun], which appears in Child G's list, this is apparent as well. On occasion, children will delete the entire /s/ cluster [un].
One possible explanation for phonological deviations between these children would be environmental factors. A large number of possible developmental routes are available, depending on that child's particular environment. Children absorb acoustic cues by listening to the speech of adults. They have to learn how to combine a number of features before they will be able to successfully reproduce the sounds they hear from adults. They try to repeat what they have learned, but attempts to reproduce it may not be initially successful, especially since children progress at different rates. Developmental differences, then, will necessarily be related to a variety of factors, depending on each child's environmental factors, and on their response to those factors.
Another explanation is that children also respond to the frequency of phonological patterns. Therefore, high frequency structures give children a greater number of chances to repeat the clusters, and along with continued practice comes greater precision. There is also the fact that some sequences of consonants are easier to produce than others, and, alternately, some are more difficult. This depends on the phonetic makeup of the cluster. In this case, the initial /s/ is preceded by the stop of a voiceless consonant, making these types of clusters more difficult for children to reproduce. It would also seem that the clusters that are easiest to produce would be the ones the children acquire first; therefore, the more challenging word-initial s+ consonant clusters would probably not be mastered until the child is more developmentally advanced.
Roca and Johnson explain that syllable structure consists of onset, rime, nucleus, and coda. The initial consonant is called the onset, and the final consonant the coda (Roca and Johnson 1999:235–287). Complex onset is one explanation for deviations in the lists of both Child A and Child G. As far as minimal satisfaction of onsets, these take priority over satisfaction of codas (Roca and Johnson 1999:279). This is in contrast to Onset Maximization Principle, which means that maximal formation of onsets takes priority over formation of codas (Roca and Johnson 1999:283). According to Roca and Johnson, the sonority profile of the syllable must rise until it reaches a peak, at which point it falls again (1999:255)
Phonological development is a gradual process during which speech patterns are reproduced and eventually acquired by children. This is particularly true in very young children, specifically those under the age of five. The ability to organize sound systems is gradually acquired. Apparently, there are a number of linguistic explanations for the deviations noted in /s/ cluster articulation. Sonority and order of acquisition are possible explanations.
Environmental factors must also be taken into consideration, since they have an important impact on the development of each child. The rate at which children absorb acoustic cues from adults is also unique for each child. Since this process includes mastering the combination of a number of features, it tends to be a gradual acquisition. In addition, attempts to reproduce language will most likely not be initially successful, because practice and repetition are necessary before accuracy is achieved. Developmental differences, then, will necessarily be related to the different environments to which each of these children has been exposed. Reference: Roca, Iggy and Johnson, Wyn. 1999. A Course in Phonology. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.
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