Variability of precocious phonological processes in French children with normal or abnormal language development

Abstract : Children with specific language impairment (SLI) tend to exhibit atypical phonological productions. These productions are often described as resulting from atypical phonological processes, which are considered pathological marker and help to differentiate children with SLI from children with normal language development (NLD) (Ingram, 1989). However, in a previous study, the spontaneous production of young NLD French children (aged 2;3 to 4;0) was compared with the production of language-matched children with SLI (aged 3;0 to 7;0). Although specific difficulties were found in the phonology of the children with SLI, no difference in the nature and number of phonological processes could be found between the two groups and the variety of the errors was too important to categorize the children according to their phonological processes. One specific aspect of this study was that the children with SLI were compared to much younger children with NLD. If this comparison is valid, this means that part of the behaviour of the children with SLI corresponds to typical language development in younger children. Therefore, it may not be the phonological abilities of the children with SLI that are impaired, but the way in which they develop and interfere with other linguistic and cognitive abilities during the course of language acquisition.

The goal of the current work is to study the phonological processes and their relation with other linguistic variables during normal language development. Our hypothesis is that in the early stages, there is no regularity in the phonological processes of children with NLD, although there could exist other types of phonological regularities such as phonotactic templates (Vihman & Croft, 2007).

The longitudinal corpus of three children with NLD was used to control this hypothesis and to check whether the phonological processes and the variations from the adult target changed during language development. The children were followed at one month intervals between about one year and half to about three years. Each recording was transcribed for phonology and the phonological variations and processes were identified for each word produced by the child.

Results showed that the nature of the phonological variations and processes remained stable through development although the quality of phonological production increased in a dramatic fashion. The number of phonological differences between occurrences of the same word produced during the same recording diminished dramatically and the quality of the children's language improved from many errors and phonological variations to very few errors and variations. However, during this time, the nature of the variations and phonological processes did not change significantly. The only process that tended to disappear was deletion of syllables.

It seems that fine-grained variations in phonological production did not impair the development of language, thanks to the existence of stabilities at a more coarse-grained level which appeared before the emergence of grammaticality. The next issue would be to understand if development of grammaticality motivates the development of fine-grained phonological characteristics of if these phenomena are simply concurrent.

Ingram, D. (1989). Phonological disability in children. Whurr: London.
Vihman, M. M. & Croft, W. (in press). Phonological development: Toward a 'radical' templatic phonology. Linguistics.
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Conference papers
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Christophe Parisse, Christelle Maillart. Variability of precocious phonological processes in French children with normal or abnormal language development. IASCL, Jul 2008, Edinburg, Royaume-Uni. ⟨halshs-00353054⟩

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