What is Phonetics and its role in Child Development

what is phonetics

As a parent, I occasionally wander into a bookstore looking for early-age learning related or educational books for my children. In the language sections of the books, I have noticed an increased emphasis on ‘phonetics based learning’ of the English Alphabet, that got me interested in understanding more about “what is phonetics”, especially in the context of language development in children.

In this blog post, we have attempted to give you an introduction on “what is Phonetics” and “importance of Phonetics for Kids”, in a concise manner.

What is Phonetics (Phonics)?

Phonetics can be understood as a study of sounds of human speech[1]. So what exactly does that mean? Imagine that your speech itself is divided into two parts: 1. Message and the 2. Sound. Phonetics can be then broadly understood as the study of the sound (and not the message). Just like the ‘message’, the ‘sound’ too is an important and integral aspect of human speech.

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Phonetics is a broad field and contains 3 sub-fields:

  1. Articulatory Phonetics is concerned with the study of organs of speech in the body and their use to produce sound. We use different parts like lips, tongue, upper palate, throat etc. in various combinations to produce sound and speech[2]. Different languages tend to have certain predominant combinations (of speech organs) and serve as clear differentiators in the sound of languages.
  2. Auditory Phonetics is concerned with how we receive and perceive speech sounds.
  3. Acoustic Phonetics is related to the science and technology of reproducing speech sounds and study of their transmission from a speaker to a listener.

Acoustic phonetics, which is primarily a technical field, is probably the least relevant for a parent. Auditory phonetics is the most important and interesting field of research in this context.

Phonetics & Child Development

The role of phonetics in childhood language development is a deep and fascinating subject.

A child’s first experience of human speech is largely through its sound[3]. It has been established that children develop basic phonetic sense to distinguish between their native language and other languages even while being in the womb[4]. As the child grows, he/she begins to understand the correlation between sound and the intended message behind the sound. It is no wonder that parents in early childhood tend to develop sound based ‘language’ of their own (baby talk) to communicate with their child. Those sounds may be meaningless for others but for the parent and child, they have a deep and intimate meaning.

By the age of 6 Months, children learn to categorise and group sounds by learning to ignore marginal differences. For example, the vowel ‘I’ sounds different if said by an adult man and a woman. In general, women tend to speak in a higher pitch than men. However, children by the age of 6 months learn to understand that even though there is a slight difference in the sound of ‘I’ as pronounced by different people, the word still means the same thing[5].
A very interesting phenomenon has been observed in children at a round of age of 9 months. All children are born with the ability to absorb and retain any human sound in any language. But by about 9 months, because they are only exposed to the sounds of the native language that is spoken in its home, the infant loses its ability to differentiate between sounds of non-native languages[6]. For example, if the native language being spoken at home in Hindi, a 9-Month-old child can hardly differentiate between the sound of Marathi and Tamil!

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It is important for Parents to understand concepts related to phonetics. As the child reaches the toddler and school-going stage and becomes exposed to structured learning, phonetics continues to play a very important role in language development.
In our subsequent articles, we explore topics related to the phonetic development of children through the age group of 2-6 Years.

Phonics for Kids: Key Take-Aways
  1. Phonetics is a deep area of study and is related to the ‘sound’ of a language. A sub-field called ‘Auditory Phonetics’ is most relevant for parents who are interested in its applications to their child’s development.
  2. Children learn a language initially through its sound. The child gradually learns to understand the message behind the sound. This fact highlights the importance of phonics.
  3. Through the infancy, the ability of children to understand the different sounds that make up its native language becomes sharper every month.
  4. Phonics continues to play a very important role in language development through the ages even when structured learning starts.
Summary:
  • Phonetics is the study of the sounds of human speech and plays an important role in language development in children.
  • As the emphasis on “‘phonics based learning” is much higher than ever, it is essential for parents to understand the concept and application of Phonetics.

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