Focusing on Phonology in Child Language Acquisition Research

This month we published On Under-reported Monolingual Child Phonology edited by Elena Babatsouli. In this post, the editor writes about how her new book contributes to the field of child language acquisition research.

Early evidence of philosophical thought on how language is acquired dates back to Classical Greece in the 4th and 5th centuries BC. Even nowadays several language acquisition publications — reviews or actual research — pose the logical problem of acquisition: how language is acquired, known as Plato’s problem. More recently, fundamental philosophical insights waver between two opposing perspectives, namely, the rational (e.g. Noam Chomsky) and the empirical stance (e.g. B.F. Skinner).

For language acquisitionists, there is also a distinct difference between the logical problem of acquisition and the developmental problem of acquisition (Hornstein & Lightfoot 1981).

The distinguished child linguist David Ingram differentiates between research on language acquisition, as one substantiated by ‘what people know’, and research on child language, substantiated by ‘what children say’. Thus, a comprehensive model of child language development needs to combine knowledge of how grammar is practiced during language acquisition, with how learnerability evolves in human offsprings. Furthermore, for such a model to have universal applicability, all aspects of the acquisition of grammar, across all natural languages, and across language acquisition contexts, need to be accounted for.

This necessitates ongoing research into individual children’s linguistic development as well as across several children’s collective developmental linguistic data from infancy and toddlerhood to about school age (i.e. protolanguage). Further elucidation comes by comparing children’s speech outputs (phonological systems) in typical development contexts, in atypical development contexts (i.e. in the presence of disorder or impairment), and in cases where intervention and therapy are practiced.

In the midst of everything, child language data (empirical proof) are the driving force behind theoretical suppositions (rationalizing).

The present volume, On Under-reported Monolingual Child Phonology, adds a tile on the edifice that makes up child language acquisition research, with a particular focus on the development of phonology (i.e. the study of human speech sounds). It has been a while since a compilation of this type has appeared in the book literature, in spite of the gradually increasing upsurge of related research undertaken in the field.

Also, there has not been a volume previously published that attempts to fill in general knowledge gaps that concern scientists, interested colleagues, and novices in child phonological development — some evidence-based, some theoretical, some purely informative.

Like the auburn-haired child on its cover, On Under-reported Monolingual Child Phonology stands out as a unique and singular contribution that pays homage to every child, every parent, every parent-linguist, every scientist, and every group effort (contributors, books, conferences) that makes child language research the vibrant collaborative enterprise that it is.

I am thankful for the opportunity to put this book together and hopeful that it will occupy a deserving place in the procession of similar struggles since the ‘official’ commencement of crosslinguistic child phonological research in the early 20th century.

Elena Babatsouli
University of Louisiana at Lafayette


For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like An Anthology of Bilingual Child Phonology edited by Elena Babatsouli and Martin J. Ball.

“Where a Second Language is Practiced, Bilingualism Soars”

We recently published An Anthology of Bilingual Child Phonology edited by Elena Babatsouli and Martin J. Ball. In this post the editors explain the background to the book.

In 2003, David Crystal reported that ‘the new millennium would see over 1,000 million people learning English’. Such an increasing trend is still corroborated today by findings of the British Council (2020) showing that the ratio of second (L2) to first language (L1) speakers of English is 4:1. Though these numbers only involve English as one of the languages in bilingualism, one could venture to interpret them to also represent a ‘bilinguals-to-monolinguals ratio’. Given that there are about 7,000 living languages in today’s world (Babatsouli, 2019), several of them spoken as L2s, we would like to encourage the reader to do the arbitrary math and surmise the number of bilinguals in the world.

To our knowledge, there are no conclusive statistics on the number of bilingual speakers in the world, let alone the number of children exposed to more languages than one. The main reason for this is that bilinguals are like chameleons, i.e. as different as the linguistic and cultural contexts in which they may be found; this makes a scientifically reliable measurement of their sum complicated. The point one needs to take home is: “where an L2 is practiced, bilingualism soars”.

Though still a neonate in the history of linguistic research, there has been in the past forty years an ongoing increase in the study of bilingualism, which is currently experiencing an unprecedented boom. This is evident in the multitude of research publications and the continuing establishment of new journals that publish such research, like the Journal of Monolingual and Bilingual Speech.

With such background as its milieu, we are proud to be introducing An Anthology of Bilingual Child Phonology that itself radiates with youth, research, and bilingualism. Our edited volume is a compilation of original research articles that focus on bilingual child phonological development during normal or impaired practice; the developmental path of language in childhood has also been referred to as protolanguage (Babatsouli & Ingram, 2018). An anthology of this type was actually missing in the published book literature, in spite of the plethora of individual studies published in the field.

Like the two-colour flower (anthos in Greek) arrangements (-logy) of its front cover, this manuscript is on the acquisition of phonology in two languages during childhood. The book has achieved its aim to enhance research in less represented languages/dialect combinations and contexts of use in child bilingualism, and we hope that this project will constitute a first step towards more publications of this type.

This collaboration has sprung from the realization of the need for such a volume, the editors’ shared study and research interests, the love for book projects, and as a way to extend previous collaboration. We are grateful to all: participating children and parents, authors, reviewers, commentators, the book series editors, and Multilingual Matters, who contributed their efforts, expertise and goodwill, and have enthusiastically supported this endeavour.

Elena Babatsouli, University of Louisiana at Lafayette

Martin J. Ball, Bangor University


For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like On Under-reported Monolingual Child Phonology edited by Elena Babatsouli.

New Research on Typical and Atypical Child Language Development and Assessment

This month we published Crosslinguistic Encounters in Language Acquisition edited by Elena Babatsouli, David Ingram and Nicole Müller. In this post the editors explain how the book came about and discuss its contribution to the field.

David, Nicole and I got together for the first time in 2015 at the International Symposium on Monolingual and Bilingual Speech that took place in Chania on the island of Crete. In retrospect, it comes as no surprise that we ended up editing this book on the acquisition and assessment of typical (normal) and atypical (disordered) child speech crosslinguistically, a theme that represents combined aspects of our research interests.

The crosslinguistic encounters in research undertaken by the volume contribute to the general effort in the field of linguistics to gather data-based evidence that ultimately guides the delineation of normative patterns in the acquisition of languages/dialects in all their likely contexts (e.g. monolingual, bilingual, multilingual, normal, disordered) on a worldwide scale. The book itself contributes towards the establishment of common assessment tools and methods that account for variation (e.g. typological, individual differences) during child language development and, as such, it is an advocate of all such endeavors. This approach will ultimately permit reliable and comprehensive documentation of what is normative and non-normative in child language acquisition in the world that will, in turn, guide clinical methods and intervention techniques.

The book’s aim was to bring together current developments characteristic of its theme, with an eye for the ‘under-represented’ – be that a language per se, a specific disorder, an assessment tool designed for a single language or valid for use across languages/dialects, a linguistic construct, a sociolinguistic context, or an innovative approach that extends existing knowledge. Readers will agree that we have met this goal, notwithstanding the length limitations that a publication of this type affords.

While working in this direction, we discovered that there was a downside to our vantage point, namely that the book turned out to be an amalgam of studies well within its intended span, but not necessarily of immediate interest in its entirety to every single language researcher contributing to these subfields. Given that recognition of shortcomings triggers progress, there is hope that the wide scope of the current edited volume may spark new thought and generate novelty across corresponding subfields in the study of child language and its assessment, where both typical and atypical development are concerned.

We are thankful to the editors of the book series at Multilingual Matters for hosting this, and also to all contributing authors, language therapists, as well as the children and families involved.

Elena Babatsouli, David Ingram, Nicole Müller

For more information about this book please see our website. If you found this interesting, you might also like Assessing Multilingual Children edited by Sharon Armon-Lotem, Jan de Jong and Natalia Meir.