How do young children learn to pronounce?

Not by imitation ...
Piers Messum's child speech research pages
(For pronunciation teaching, visit Pronunciation Science)

I am interested in how young children learn the pronunciation of their first language (L1), particularly:
  • the qualities of its speech sounds
  • its timing patterns
My accounts of the two processes resolve some fundamental problems in speech development and phonetics. They point the way to more effective pronunciation teaching for older learners.

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Almost everyone believes that children learn the two aspects of pronunciation above by imitation. Not by imitation in the sense of simple mimicry, of course, but by young children identifying and then copying the important characteristics of what they hear.

This belief is widespread for several reasons, including these
  • that it appears to be ‘common sense’. The information is there in the speech signal and replication occurs, so why not by copying?

  • that children certainly do learn to pronounce words by imitation, in one sense of the word 'imitation'.

Acoustic matching:
the child does all the work

But learning the sequence of speech sounds that make up an individual word - which is what an experienced speaker does in order to learn the pronunciation of a new word - is not the same as learning speech sound pronunciations. These are the actions needed to reproduce speech sounds themselves, which are then available for use in the production of words. Speech sounds are part of the system of a language. Individual words make use of that system.

Phoneticians and others have not considered that there might be an alternative to simple copying to explain how children end up pronouncing words like the people around them. The proposition that the basic elements of pronunciation are learnt by imitation is no more than a belief. There is no evidence for ‘imitative’ accounts of either the learning of speech sounds or the learning of the temporal phonetic phenomena that characterise particular languages. 

In my thesis I laid out the problems with the conventional view. I then described alternative mechanisms, showing:

  • how the reflection (reformulation) of a child’s utterances by his mother leads to the emergence of speech sounds, and

  • how the aerodynamics and respiratory physiology of speech in a child-size body lead to behaviour that we have wrongly construed to be timing-based. (Changes in timing occur, but not intentionally.)  

Reformulation by caregivers: 
perceptual judgement made 
by the expert, adult speaker; 
equivalence deduced by the infant

In neither case is the child's production modelled on what he hears.

In comparison to what is currently believed, my proposals are more plausible and more coherent.

There is a fuller description of my PhD thesis here. Please contact me if you have any questions or comments.
Subpages (1): PhD summary