The phonological acquisition of 129 monolingual Putonghua-speaking
children, aged 1; 6 to 4; 6, is described. Putonghua (Modern Standard
Chinese) syllables have four possible elements: tone, syllable-initial
consonant, vowel, and syllable-final consonant. The children's errors
suggested that Putonghua-speaking children mastered these elements in
the following order: tones were acquired first; then syllable-final
consonants and vowels; and syllable-initial consonants were acquired
last. Phonetic acquisition of the 21 syllable-initial consonants was
complete by 3; 6 for 75% of children. By 4; 6 the children were using the
syllable-initial consonants correctly on two thirds of occasions (with the
exception of four affricates). Simple vowels emerged early in development.
However, triphthongs and diphthongs were prone to systematic errors.
Tone errors were rare, perhaps because of their role in
distinguishing lexical meaning. In contrast, acquisition of ‘weak stress’
and ‘rhotacized feature’ was incomplete in the oldest children assessed.
Phonological processes used by the children were identified. Two of
these processes, syllable-initial consonant deletion and backing, would
be considered atypical error patterns in English. Existing theories of
phonological acquisition (e.g. concepts of markedness, functional load,
feature hierarchies) cannot account for some of the patterns revealed. A
satisfactory explanation of the findings requires more attention to the
specific characteristics of the linguistic system the children are learning.
It is proposed that the saliency of the components in the language system
determines the order of acquisition.