Learning to speak involves both mastering the requisite articulatory gestures of one’s native language and learning to coordinate those gestures according to the rules of the language. Voice onset time (VOT) acquisition illustrates this point: The child must learn to produce the necessary upper vocal tract and laryngeal gestures and to coordinate them with very precise timing. This longitudinal study examined the acquisition of English VOT by audiotaping seven children at 2month intervals from first words (around 15months) to the appearance of three-word sentences (around 30months) in spontaneous speech. Words with initial stops were excerpted, and (1) the numbers of words produced with intended voiced and voiceless initial stops were counted; (2) VOT was measured; and (3) within-child standard deviations of VOT were measured. Results showed that children (1) initially avoided saying words with voiceless initial stops, (2) initially did not delay the onset of the laryngeal adduction relative to the release of closure as long as adults do for voiceless stops, and (3) were more variable in VOT for voiceless than for voiced stops. Overall these results support a model of acquisition that focuses on the mastery of gestural coordination as opposed to the acquisition of segmental contrasts.

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