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English French Arabic Cantonese Native language

Figure 2.4 The relationship between the second and first vowel formants in the babbling of children often months from different linguistic groups corresponds to the relationship found in their native language.

A parallelism was observed in the compactness relation between the vowels of the children of the different groups and the vowels of the adult languages: the F2/F1 relation was highest among the English and weakest among the Cantonese. This parallelism shows that children already have a representation of the vowel space of the language that allows them to realize vowels as a function of the perceived characteristics of vowels they have heard.

Kuhl's research (Kuhl et al., 1992) on perceptual categorizations, conducted in the United States and in Sweden, later showed that babies exhibit greater sensitivity, already at six months, to the prototypical vowels of their language. This early encoding of the vowel categories of the language spoken around them agrees with the data showing early differences in productions. Moreover, these differences testify to a use of the perceptual encoding of vowels for production in babbling. This convergence establishes that an interaction between the perceptual processing and encoding of elements of the phonetic repertoire takes place over the course of the first year.

It remained to be seen whether the repertoire of the language has an influence on consonants and syllables. There was strong resistance to this view at the time. Conventional approaches to the problem of articulation were based on the marked predominance of occlusives—particularly of labials and dentals—in the babbling of babies and in their first words: consonants are more complex to produce than vowels, which are more stable, and therefore require more motor skill. The dominant view was that consonants are uniquely determined by articulatory mechanisms.

Japanese and Swedish babies, along with French and American babies, were kind enough to provide us with information (Boysson-Bardies et al., 1992; see also Boysson-Bardies and Vihman, 1991). Like our American and Swedish colleagues with whom we carried out this research, we began by recording the children in their native countries when they were ten months old and had not yet produced any words. Our study continued until the children produced about twenty-five words in the course of a session: they were then between sixteen and nineteen months. Babbling and words were analyzed independently and grouped according to the different age brackets. The distribution of consonants was studied according to the place of articulation for three principal categories (labials, dentals, and velars) and according to the manner of articulation (occlusives, fricatives, nasals, and liquids).

In the data on babbling, as in that on first words, the sizable percentage of labial and dental consonants, the preponderance of occlusives, and the rarity of fricatives and of laterals (/l/ and /r/) matched the universal general tendencies predicted by physiological considerations (see figure 2.5). Clear differences were found, however, in the distribution of places of articulation and modes of consonant production among the four groups of children. Thus, at the age of ten months, French children produced more labials than Japanese or Swedish children did.

Cross-linguistic analysis also confirmed that the repertoire of consonants, in babbling as well as in the production of first words, resembled the distribution that was later to be found in children's commonest words: the process of constructing phonetic representations specific to their language had begun. At ten months, the children we studied had already selected a repertoire of consonants that reflected the statistical tendencies of their native language (see figure 2.6).

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