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Auteur: Margaret KEHOE

The development of rhotics: A cross-linguistic comparison amongst bilingual children

Abstract/Résumé: Children, regardless of language, experience difficulty producing /r/-sounds or rhotics. This difficulty may be due to phonetic and to phonological factors related to articulatory complexity and to /r/’s ambiguous place-of-articulation status. Despite its purported universal difficulty, cross-linguistic differences in /r/ development have been reported. For example, the French /r/ is claimed to be acquired earlier than the English /r/. This study examines the order in which /r/ is acquired cross-linguistically with the wider aim of determining which phonetic and phonological features of /r/ create the greatest difficulty for children. The cross-linguistic comparison is conducted by comparing rate and style of development of /r/ in bilingual children. The data-base consists of longitudinal naturalistic data from small group studies and case studies of 12 bilingual children acquiring from birth two of the following languages: French, Italian, Spanish, English, and German. The target /r/ in these languages includes the uvular fricative/approximant, the alveolar trill, the alveolar tap, and the alveolar approximant. The focus is on /r/ production in syllable onset position in singleton (e.g., red) and in consonant clusters (e.g., bread). A series of measures, which include performance rate, error patterns, and the relationship of /r/ to /l/ sound acquisition, are employed to contrast target /r/ production in the two languages of the bilingual children. The results indicate clear asymmetries in the acquisition of /r/ across languages of the bilingual children. The main finding is that uvular /r/ is acquired before alveolar /r/. The relative order amongst alveolar taps, approximants, or trills is less clear. An analysis of error patterns reveal differences according to the phonetic qualities of target /r/: uvular /r/ is typically deleted; alveolar taps and trills are substituted by liquids, and alveolar approximants are substituted by glides. All /r/ sounds are acquired after /l/. The data suggest that phonological factors play an important role in /r/ acquisition. Uvular /r/ is frequently interpreted as [dorsal] but alveolar /r/ is subject to a number of patterns. In particular, English /r/ is interpreted as [labial], which is a preferred pattern in phonological acquisition, and this appears to contribute to its protracted acquisition. In sum, the acceptability of the error pattern in the child’s phonological system is a determining factor in the early or late acquisition of /r/.