In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Early Child Phonology

  • Introduction
  • Overviews
  • Theoretical Perspectives on Perception
  • Theoretical Perspectives on Production
  • Phonology and the Lexicon

Linguistics Early Child Phonology
Marilyn Vihman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0261


Child phonology is a relatively young discipline. Although diary studies provided data and analyses from the early 20th century, it was only in the 1970s that technological advances made it possible to record infants on audio and video, providing better documented accounts, and to investigate infant speech perception experimentally. The titles included here focus mainly on the first two years of life, the period of the most dramatic change. Two theoretical positions have long dominated production studies, reflecting divisions within linguistics more generally. The formalist generative model conceptualizes child phonology as an account of the stage-like development of constraint-based child output forms guided by universal principles. In contrast, functionalist or usage-based positions emphasize the sensorimotor origins of speech, self-organization, and individual variability. Longitudinal studies have revealed the kind of regression first reported for morphological development: Early accurate forms are followed by more systematic but less accurate ones, suggesting representational reorganization. As linguistic theories have evolved over the past half-century, so have approaches to child phonology. The proposal that speech is retained in the form of exemplars, for example, is currently reflected in both formalist and usage-based production models. Research on infant perception and processing of speech has largely followed a separate trajectory. After twenty years of investigation into infant discrimination of speech-sound contrasts in the first months of life researchers turned their attention to advances in segmentation, or word recognition within the speech stream; in the past twenty years that research has been extended to languages other than English. Another highly productive line of research is statistical or distributional learning, which provides implicit knowledge of ambient language patterns. This conceptualization, with experimental support, has helped to account for perceptual narrowing, or the loss of “universal” discrimination after about six months, and also for ambient language effects on babbling and first words. More recently, experimental studies have begun to address the relationship between production and perception, providing evidence of the effect of a child’s individual vocal patterns on the processing of input speech. Bilingual acquisition and the development of prosody in general and tones in particular have also received more serious attention in the past twenty years, again with parallel lines of research addressing perception and production.


Strongly contrasting theoretical and methodological approaches have divided child phonology since it emerged as a research area in the 1970s. As regards methods, the primary distinction is between the long-standing tradition of observational studies oriented toward vocal production (mainly babbling and early word forms) and experimental studies of various aspects of infant speech perception and word recognition. Production studies tend to involve small samples of children followed longitudinally, whereas experimental studies of infant speech perception, segmentation, and word-form recognition generally involve single-session testing of child samples large enough to permit statistical analysis. Yeni-Komshian, et al. 1980; Ferguson, et al. 1992; Peperkamp 2003; and Demuth 2006 appeared over a twenty-five-year period; all of them are the product of thematic conferences and each one covers a wide range of methodological and theoretical approaches, addressing issues in both production and perception. Kager, et al. 2004 provides an update to formalist thinking, framed in Optimality Theory (OT). Jusczyk 1997 gives an overview focused on the author’s own extensive research. Vihman 2014 provides overviews of both infant speech perception and production and also covers both formalist and functionalist approaches, but mainly from a functionalist perspective. Tessier 2015 is a textbook written largely from an OT perspective.

  • Demuth, Katherine, ed. 2006. Special issue: Crosslinguistic perspectives on the development of prosodic words. Language and Speech 49.2: 129–295.

    DOI: 10.1177/00238309060490020101

    Includes a selection of production studies of children acquiring different languages, all addressing the development of the prosodic word, within the framework first posited by Selkirk in 1980 (E. Selkirk, “The Role of Prosodic Categories in English Word Stress.” Linguistic Inquiry 2.3 (1980): 563–605). Frequency of occurrence in the input is also highlighted.

  • Ferguson, Charles A., Lise Menn, and Carol Stoel-Gammon, eds. 1992. Phonological development: Models, research, implications. Timonium, MD: York Press.

    Highly informative report on the state of the art in phonological development based on the closing conference (1989) of the Child Phonology Project established at Stanford by Charles Ferguson in 1968. The volume is divided into the three parts given in the subtitle, each with an introductory overview by one of the editors and eight chapters.

  • Jusczyk, Peter W. 1997. The discovery of spoken language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    Provides insight into the thinking of the most influential researcher in the field of speech perception (see Gerken and Aslin, “Thirty Years of Research on Infant Speech Perception.” Language Learning and Development (2005) 1:5–21). Although Jusczyk focuses primarily on his main themes, infant speech perception and word recognition, he includes broader context on language development, attention, and memory. The final chapter updates his WRAPSA model (see Jusczyk 1993 under Theoretical Perspectives on Perception).

  • Kager, René, Joe Pater, and Wim Zonneveld, eds. 2004. Constraints in phonological acquisition. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Provides several accounts of phonological learning that adhere more or less closely, if not always uncritically, to an OT framework.

  • Peperkamp, Sharon, ed. 2003. Phonological acquisition. Language and Speech 46.2–3: 129–295.

    Drawn from a workshop designed to bring together experimental psycholinguists and theoretical phonologists concerned with development, the papers included in this double issue represent development only in perception but reflect important new theoretical perspectives.

  • Tessier, Anne-Michelle. 2015. Phonological acquisition: Child language and constraint-based grammar. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

    Includes a brief account of infant speech perception and full chapters on morpho-phonology and bilingual phonological development. Optimality Theory (OT) constructs are introduced throughout and are fully discussed in the closing chapter.

  • Vihman, Marilyn M. 2014. Phonological development: The first two years. 2d ed. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

    The first edition (1996) was the first book-length overview of child phonology, covering infant speech perception, vocal production, and the transition to language as well as prosodic development and later linguistic perception. The second edition omits sections on older children and includes additional chapters on infant development, experimental studies of word-form learning, and bilingual development; two chapters are devoted to theoretical models.

  • Yeni-Komshian, G. H., J. F. Kavanagh, and C. A. Ferguson, eds. 1980. Child phonology. 2 vols. New York: Academic Press.

    Derives from a conference on child phonology in 1978 that drew speakers from a number of different disciplines, each of whom addresses the state of the art at the time in what was then the relatively new field of systematic investigation into child phonology. Vol. 1: Production; Vol. 2, Perception.

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