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The phonological acquisition of Putonghua (Modern Standard Chinese)

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 February 2000

Department of Speech, University of Newcastle upon Tyne
Department of Speech, University of Newcastle upon Tyne


The phonological acquisition of 129 monolingual Putonghua-speaking children, aged 1; 6 to 4; 6, is described. Putonghua (Modern Standard Chinese) syllables have four possible elements: tone, syllable-initial consonant, vowel, and syllable-final consonant. The children's errors suggested that Putonghua-speaking children mastered these elements in the following order: tones were acquired first; then syllable-final consonants and vowels; and syllable-initial consonants were acquired last. Phonetic acquisition of the 21 syllable-initial consonants was complete by 3; 6 for 75% of children. By 4; 6 the children were using the syllable-initial consonants correctly on two thirds of occasions (with the exception of four affricates). Simple vowels emerged early in development. However, triphthongs and diphthongs were prone to systematic errors. Tone errors were rare, perhaps because of their role in distinguishing lexical meaning. In contrast, acquisition of ‘weak stress’ and ‘rhotacized feature’ was incomplete in the oldest children assessed. Phonological processes used by the children were identified. Two of these processes, syllable-initial consonant deletion and backing, would be considered atypical error patterns in English. Existing theories of phonological acquisition (e.g. concepts of markedness, functional load, feature hierarchies) cannot account for some of the patterns revealed. A satisfactory explanation of the findings requires more attention to the specific characteristics of the linguistic system the children are learning. It is proposed that the saliency of the components in the language system determines the order of acquisition.

Research Article
© 2000 Cambridge University Press

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Data collection for the study on which this paper is based was financially supported in part by a University Research Committee small grant from University of Newcastle upon Tyne. Jiang Tao and Shu Hua (Department of Psychology, Beijing Normal University) provided crucial assistance to the data collection. Gerry Docherty (Department of Speech, University of Newcastle) discussed and clarified many phonetics and phonology issues. Li Wei acted as the key consultant for the project as a whole and provided a great deal of input regarding the design of the study and the phonological description of Putonghua. Discussions with him helped to define the notion of ‘phonological saliency’ more precisely. Transcription reliability was checked by Dom Watt and Li Wei. Alison Holm read and commented in detail on an earlier version of the paper. Parts of the paper have been presented at the 6th International Conference on Chinese Linguistics, 19–21 June 1997, Leiden, the Netherlands and the Child Language Seminar, 4–6 September 1998, Sheffield, UK. Needless to say, the study would not have been possible without the co- operation of the children and their families.