Interval or duration of segments, syllables, words and phrases is an important acoustic feature which influences the naturalness of speech. A number of cross-sectional studies regarding acoustic characteristics of children’s speech development found that intervals of segments, syllables, words and phrases tend to change with the growing age. One hypothesis assumed that decreases in intervals would be greater when children were younger and smaller decreases in intervals when older (Thelen ,1991), it has been supported by quite a number of researches on the basis of cross-sectional studies (Tingley & Allen,1975; Kent & Forner,1980; Chermak & Schneiderman, 1986), but the other hypothesis predicted that decreases in intervals would be smaller when children were younger and greater decreases in intervals when older (Smith, Kenney & Hussain, 1996). Researchers seem to come up with conflicting postulations and inconsistent results about the change trends concerning intervals of segments, syllables, words and phrases, leaving it as an issue unresolved. Most acoustic investigations of children’s speech production have been conducted via cross-sectional designs, which involves studying several groups of children. So far, there are only a few longitudinal studies. This issue needs more longitudinal investigations; moreover, the acoustic measures of the intervals of child speech are hardly available. All former studies focus on word stages excluding the babbling stages especially the canonical babbling stage, but we need to find out when concrete changes of intervals begin to occur and what causes the changes. Therefore, we conducted an acoustic study of interval characteristics of segments and words concerning Canonical Babble ( CB) and early speech in an infant aged from 0;9 to 2;4 acquiring Mandarin Chinese. The current research addresses the following two questions:1. Whether decreases in interval would be greater when children were younger and smaller when they were older or vice versa?2. Whether the child speech concerning the acoustic features of interval drifts in the direction of the language they are exposed to?The female infant whose L1 was Southern Mandarin living in Changsha was audio- and video-taped at her home for about one hour almost on a weekly basis during her age range from 0;9 to 2;4 under natural observation by us investigators. The recordings were digitized. Parts of the digitized material were labeled. All the repetitions were excluded. The utterances were extracted from 44 sessions ranging from 30 minutes to one hour. The utterances were divided into segments as well as syllable-sized units. Age stages are 0;9-1;0,1;1-1;5, 1;6-2;0, 2;1-2;4. The subject was a monolingual normal child from parents with a good education.
The infant was audio-and video-taped in her home almost every week. The data were digitized, segments and syllables from 44 sessions spanning the transition from babble to speech were transcribed in narrow IPA and coded for analysis. Babble was coded from age 0;9-1;0 , and words were coded from 1;0 to 2;4, the data has been checked by two professionally trained persons who majored in phonetics. The present investigation is a longitudinal analysis of some temporal characteristics of the child speech during the age periods of 0;9-1;0, 1;1-1;5, 1;6-2;0, 2;1-2;4.
The answer to Research Question 1 is that our results are in agreement with neither of the hypotheses. One hypothesis assumed that decreases in intervals would be greater when children were younger and smaller decreases in intervals when older (Thelen ,1991); but the other hypothesis predicted that decreases in intervals would be smaller when children were younger and greater decreases in intervals when older (Smith, Kenney & Hussain, 1996). On the whole, there is a tendency of decrease in segmental and syllabic duration with the growing age, but the changes are not drastic and abrupt. For example, /a/ after /k/ in Table 1 has greater decrease during 1;1-1;5, while /a/ after /p/, /t/ and /w/ has greater decrease during 2;1-2;4. /ka/ has greater decrease during 1;1-1;5, while /ta/ and /na/ has greater decrease during 2;1-2;4.Across the age periods, interval change experiences lots of fluctuation all the time.
The answer to Research Question 2 is yes. Babbling stage is a period in which the children’s acoustic features of intervals of segments, syllables, words and phrases is shifted in the direction of the language to be learned, babbling and children’s speech emergence is greatly influenced by ambient language. The phonetic changes in terms of duration would go on until as late as 10-12 years of age before reaching adult-like levels. Definitely, with the increase of exposure to ambient language, the variation would be less and less until they attain the adult-like competence.
Via the analysis of the SPSS 15.0, the decrease of segmental and syllabic intervals across the four age periods proves to be of no significant difference (p>0.05). It means that the change of segmental and syllabic intervals is continuous. It reveals that the process of child speech development is gradual and cumulative.