I think most people wonder how kids seem to magically go from tiny little cooing balls of cuteness to children who can talk. This is a video of that transformation in progress. The only word Nora says in this video is ball. You can hear it when she picks the thing up near the beginning (dala) later when she’s showing it to her uncle Brian (he naturally hears [da] as in dada but it’s actually dall), while running with it, and toward the end as she’s bent over in front of her cousin Beth (visible only as a pair of legs, I’m afraid). The sounds [p] and [b] are both made by stopping all air flowing out of the mouth with your lips, allowing pressure to build up in your mouth and then opening your lips to release the pressure. Nora has figured out how to use the [p] sound at the beginning of a word (e.g. papa, (s)poon, paperetc.), but she currently conflates [b] with [d]. We’d say that [p] is a sound capable of conveying a distinction in meaning in Nora’s grammar of sounds; in other words, /p/ is a phoneme for Nora.
[b]’s status, on the other hand, is less clear. She is able to tell the difference between /d/ and /b/ words when we say them to her (pairs of words showing this minimal difference are: do/boo, Dee/bee, dad/bad, dig/big). We could put a stuffed bee and her friend Dee on either side of the living room and ask “where is the bee” and she’ll never accidentally go to Dee (she may never go to either but that’s a separate issue). She can clearly hear the difference — it is part of her grammar. However, she can not yet produce this difference. But where is the disconnect? Is she thinking of /b/, trying to say [b], but having it come out [d] meaning there’s some merely mechanical or articulatory disconnect? Or is there a speech production grammar that is distinct from her speech perception grammar (two distinct regions in her mind that encode these apparently isomorphic concepts separately)? Can she tell that the [d] sound she produces is not the same as the [b] sound she hears us make? Are there systematic differences between the [d] sound in balloon and the [d] sound in dada when she says them? These are the sorts of questions I work on, the sorts of questions I’m terribly interested in and what I mean when I tell you I’m a linguist.
As it happens, [b] and [d] are also quite similar to one another (both require that your vocal cords start slapping together very shortly after you release the pressure in your mouth or even *before* you release the air pressure) but I’ll leave that for another post.
Still here? Have I bored you away yet? Your reward is getting to watch a very happy little girl play with a ball that’s nearly as big as she is. Enjoy.
[flv:2009-06-28-ball.flv 480 270]
* We’re also very fond of red lentils but that’s another post.