University of Cambridge > > RCEAL Tuesday Colloquia > A multisystemic model of rhythm development: Disentangling phonology and prosody in a cross-linguistic study

A multisystemic model of rhythm development: Disentangling phonology and prosody in a cross-linguistic study

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The characteristic rhythm of a language – traditionally referred to in terms of stress- and syllable-timing – has been claimed to emerge from various phonological properties, especially vowel reduction and syllable complexity (e.g. Bertinetto 1981, Dasher and Bolinger 1982, Roach 1982, Dauer 1983). If so, learning to produce an appropriate rhythmic pattern as a child depends not only on sufficient motor control, but also on the acquisition of those properties. This implies that, while rhythmic development may start early (e.g. Nazzi et al 1998), it potentially encompasses the entire period of phonological development until approximately age 9 (Ruscello 2003).

The few existing developmental studies of rhythm production appear to support this view (Boysson-Bardies and Vihman 1991, Grabe et al 1999, Lléo and Kehoe 2002, Payne et al. submitted), showing that rhythm in child speech follows different developmental paths depending on language, and remains un-target-like even at 6 (Payne et al. submitted). This suggests that adult-like timing emerges gradually, when language-specific phonological and prosodic properties are acquired.

In this paper, we investigate to what extent the acquisition of systemic properties like syllable structure, stress placement, phrasing and segment inventory can indeed account for cross-linguistic developmental differences in rhythm. Comparing English (stress-timed), Spanish (syllable-timed), and Catalan (mixed/intermediate rhythm class) 2-, 4-, and 6-year-olds, we hypothesise that rhythmic differences emerge in parallel with the acquisition of phonology. Hence, cross-linguistic rhythmic differences should already be apparent at age 2, but become stronger with age, reflecting phonological and prosodic differences. Initial findings show that, although there are indeed ambient effects of syllable structure at age 2, syllable complexity cannot fully explain the findings. Factors such as stress placement and phrasing, which are some of the properties which are not yet fully acquired at 6, also play a role, supporting a more refined, multi-systemic model of rhythmic development.

This study is part of ‘APriL’, an international collaborative project with Lluïsa Astruc (Open University), Elinor Payne (University of Oxford), and Pilar Prieto and Maria del Mar Vanrell (both Universitat Pompeu Fabra), funded by the Generalitat de Catalunya (Ref. 2007 PBR 29 and Ref. 2009 PBR 00018 ; PI Prieto) and the British Academy (Ref. SG-51777; PI Post).

This talk is part of the RCEAL Tuesday Colloquia series.

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