Theoretical Explanations

One of the main debates in the literature on phonological development has been between those advocating the view that very early phonological development is a discontinuous stage, which does not map onto the adult system, and those who argue that from the beginning young children's phonological systems share properties of the adult system. More evidence has accrued in favor of the latter view, called the continuity hypothesis, which suggests that the same underlying mechanisms are used in phonological acquisition as in the adult speaker.

One important piece of evidence for the continuity hypothesis is that infants are capable of perceiving speech in a mature, adult-like way before they even begin producing their first words. Furthermore, it is clear from the developmental and error patterns described here that children's attempts at producing target words are guided by abstract representations of speech sounds, including representations of syllable structures and distinctive articulatory features. At the earliest stages, the representations of syllable structures are very simple (e.g., simple CV structures referred to as minimal words), and these become more elaborate and complex over time. Similarly, children's earliest words may only include a small group of distinctive features that are considered marked (such as labials). Again, these expand over time, until by age 3 or so, the majority of children have mastered the phonology of their native language.

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