Using Phonetics to Teach Phonology

Francoise and I have been working on the second edition of our book for some time now and the book is finally in the production stage – counting down to a December 2016 release date. One of the decisions we have had to make is whether to keep all the figures that were in the first edition – we must pay the copyright holders (note: not the authors!) in order to gain the right to reproduce all those figures and tables in our book. It is a difficult decision for each and every figure given that the costs vary from approximately $100 to $1000 per figure and there are 99 of them in the book!

Consider the figure shown at the bottom of this post – it illustrates data from some research by Goffman and Malin (1999) in which adults and children produced nonsense words with either a trochaic stress pattern (strong-weak) or an iambic stress-pattern (weak-strong). Kinematic tracings of lower lip movements are shown. The surprise was that the children modulated the stress pattern of the iambic words in a fairly adult-like manner, albeit with less consistency than the adults. The children did not modulate the stress pattern of the trochaic word, producing it like a spondee, with equal stress on both syllables, which was an unexpectedly immature pattern. Why did I choose to keep this figure in a book on phonology? Surely the whole point of phonology is to convert speech to an abstract form like this: [ˈpʌpəp] and [pəˈpʌp]? In the end I decided that I wanted to keep it because I so much want my students to see it – it encapsulates so many primary themes in our book, as follows:

  1. Basic concepts are essential to understand, and for multilingual students in particular, the figure provides a beautiful visual representation of trochee, spondee and iamb that is much more effective than a string of phonetic symbols.
  2. What you get is not always what you hear! If you were to transcribe the child saying the word “puppet” with the kinematics shown in the lower left quadrant of the figure, the odds are that you would produce [ˈpʌpət] which would represent what you expect to hear rather than exactly what the child said. I spend quite a bit of time talking about the limits of phonetic transcription in the first chapter of the book.
  3. The development of prosody is fundamental to the development of phonology: prosodic frames – word templates made up of syllable shapes and stress patterns that are characteristic of ambient language – emerge early and support the acquisition of phonemes. These two levels of the phonological hierarchy are intimately interconnected – it really is time to stop teaching linear phonology.
  4. Phonology is fully dependent upon phonetics – you cannot understand phonological development without understanding the articulatory and perceptual substrates.
  5. Having said that, it is not true that phonological development is determined by maturation of the motor system. If it were, the trochaic pattern would emerge first, before the iambic stress pattern, whereas the reverse is shown in the figure. This demonstration can be the trigger for an interesting discussion of competing approaches to intervention.
  6. The figure is a beautiful illustration of the operation of lexical contrast. Why does the child learn to modulate the strong-strong stress pattern to produce a weak-strong iamb before properly mastering the (for English) canonical strong-weak pattern? Because they must do that in order to produce a contrast between these two word templates in the minds of the listener.
  7. The figure is a lovely illustration of how phonology emerges from the dynamic interplay of phonetic, semantic, and social factors with a dynamic systems approach to development being a coherent thread throughout the book.

The thing about a book however is I can only build possibilities into it – the teaching and the learning is constrained by the imagination of the teachers and the learners. I don’t know how many readers will discover in a paragraph on the development of “interarticulator coordination” a plethora of important messages about the development of phonology.

Figure 3-7

Figure 3–7. Time and amplitude normalized kinematic tracings of displacement of the lower lip during productions of the nonsense words [ˈpʌpəp] (left) and [pəˈpʌp] (right), recorded from an adult (top) and child (bottom). The corresponding spatiotemporal indexes for the repeat productions shown are: (A) adult trochee STI = 8.56, (B) adult iamb STI = 8.99, (C) child trochee STI =18.15, and (D) child iamb STI = 14.24. Adapted from Goffman & Malin (1999). Metrical effects on speech movements in children and adults. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 42, Figure 5, p. 1009. Used with permission of the American Speech-Hearing-Language Association.


Rvachew, S., & Brosseau-Lapré, F. (2018). Developmental Phonological Disorders: Foundations of Clinical Practice (Second Edition). San Diego, CA: Plural Publishing.

Goffman, L., & Malin, C. (1999). Metrical effects on speech movements in children and adults. Journal of Speech, Language and Hearing Research, 42, 1003-1015

(edited on August 26, 2016 to correct copy-right date for DPD2e. The second edition will be released in December 2016)