Evidence for [Coronal] Underspecification in Typical and Atypical Phonological Development

Front Hum Neurosci. 2020 Dec 22;14:580697. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2020.580697. eCollection 2020.


The Featurally Underspecified Lexicon (FUL) theory predicts that [coronal] is the language universal default place of articulation for phonemes. This assumption has been consistently supported with adult behavioral and event-related potential (ERP) data; however, this underspecification claim has not been tested in developmental populations. The purpose of this study was to determine whether children demonstrate [coronal] underspecification patterns similar to those of adults. Two English consonants differing in place of articulation, [labial] /b/ and [coronal] /d/, were presented to 24 children (ages 4-6 years) characterized by either a typically developing phonological system (TD) or a phonological disorder (PD). Two syllables, /bɑ/ and /dɑ/, were presented in an ERP oddball paradigm where both syllables served as the standard and deviant stimulus in opposite stimulus sets. Underspecification was examined with three analyses: traditional mean amplitude measurements, cluster-based permutation tests, and single-trial general linear model (GLM) analyses of single-subject data. Contrary to previous adult findings, children with PD demonstrated a large positive mismatch response (PMR) to /bɑ/ while the children with TD exhibited a negative mismatch response (MMN); significant group differences were not observed in the /dɑ/ responses. Moreover, the /bɑ/ deviant ERP response was significantly larger in the TD children than in the children with PD. At the single-subject level, more children demonstrated mismatch responses to /dɑ/ than to /bɑ/, though some children had a /bɑ/ mismatch response and no /dɑ/ mismatch response. While both groups of children demonstrated similar responses to the underspecified /dɑ/, their neural responses to the more specified /bɑ/ varied. These findings are interpreted within a proposed developmental model of phonological underspecification, wherein children with PD are functioning at a developmentally less mature stage of phonological acquisition than their same-aged TD peers. Thus, phonological underspecification is a phenomenon that likely develops over time with experience and exposure to language.

Keywords: ERP; MMN; children; phonological disorder; phonology; underspecification.