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On the role of imitation in learning to pronounce

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If you have a question about this talk, please contact Sarah Hawkins.

Note change in start time: 4 pm, not 4.15 pm.

Timing patterns and the qualities of speech sounds are two important aspects of pronunciation. It is generally believed that imitation from adult models is the mechanism by which a child replicates them. However, this account is unsatisfactory, both for theoretical reasons and because it leaves the developmental data difficult to explain.

I describe two alternative mechanisms. The first explains some timing patterns (vowel length changes, ‘rhythm’, etc) as emerging because a child’s production apparatus is small, immature and in training. As a result, both the aerodynamics of his speech and his style of speech breathing differ markedly from the adult model. Under their constraints, the child modifies his segmental output in various ways which have effects on speech timing; but these effects are epiphenomenal rather than the result of being modelled directly.

The second mechanism accounts for how children learn to pronounce speech sounds. The common, but actually problematic, assumption is that a child does this by judging the similarity between his own and others’ output, and adjusting his production accordingly. Instead, I propose a role for the typical vocal interaction of early childhood where a mother reformulates (‘imitates’) her child’s output, reflecting back the linguistic intentions she imputes to him. Thus the child can use an adult judgment of similarity to determine equivalence between his production and adult output. This generates the most natural of forms for the underlying representation of speech sounds but via a more complex learning process than simple imitation. As a result, some longstanding problems in speech can be resolved and an integrated developmental account of production and perception emerges.

This talk is part of the Linguistics PhD seminars series.

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