LAFON 54A THE PRIMARY HEARING (road to language) part 14

I will inevitably get to use the term “language” in the duality of its meaning: language as a system of words used in conventional ways for communication, and language as the production of sounds by the vocal apparatus leading to speech. Can both meanings be considered as analogue?

As you would expect, the answer is: NO.


 « A language… is a code, a convention, and human beings use this code as a basis to elaborate their speech – but the language is the code itself » (1).

 «  … a language, conscientiously employed in a given population, and used by members of this population as a reference for communication”(2).

 « Why does the vocal timbre obtained by a first reinforcement at 900 Hz and another one at 1200 Hz inevitably refers to an /a/? Because we learnt it this way. But we could just as well say that /a/ is represented by a finger snap, and it would retain its informative properties» (3).

« A language… is not a basic accumulation of elements that can be implemented indefinitely, it is an organised system made of opposition and identity which constitute a link between the various units to the point of intricate assemblies leading to the major concepts of speech »(4).

« Hence the ability of children to reproduce anything, any « language » provided that they are immersed in it, i.e. they receive constant stimulation from their relatives in hearing and producing these items, so that they have a model to imitate. This is the stage when people say children are particularly good at languages because they manage to reproduce a wide range of tones and melodies. This, however, has nothing to do with being gifted, it is just the conclusion reached by adults who have trouble to learn a foreign language and who simply transpose their difficulties to their children: they notice the wide range of sounds emitted by children, as they have not limited their articulatory range yet, and can thus easily reproduce any sound because they have not restricted their capabilities to the automatic mechanisms of their mother tongue. Since these automatisms are not settled yet, children can freely and accurately reproduce anything. If we pay attention to the sounds produced by children, we can detect occurrences that belong to foreign languages: they can produce guttural sounds and other sounds that do not belong to their mother tongue, sounds that disappear once children have learnt to restrict their sounds production to those in use in the language spoken by their parents. The disappearance of these capacities is the consequence of the limitation to the specific sounds of their mother tongue: specific, conventional, coded sounds. Children will learn the movements required to produce these sounds and their corresponding gesture and, in a certain way, will perform these gestures as an automated process. This early automation jeopardises the future systematic acquisition of new gestures”(5).

A language is a social phenomenon constituted of basic components: sentence, word and phoneme. The phoneme is at the same time a symbol and a phonological unit. As written by N.S. TROUBETZKOY pp. 37-38 of his book entitled “Principles of Phonology” (1986, Klincksieck publishing): “For a given language, the phonological units that cannot be analysed as smaller and successive phonological units shall be named phonemes”. A phoneme is thus the minimal phonological unit of a language.”

Further information about Russian linguist N.S. TROUBETZKOY (1890-1938) can be found here:


(1) Professor J.C. LAFON « l’enfant sourd avant trois ans » Enjeu et embûches de l’éducation précoce (“Deafness in children under 3 years old » Challenges and pitfalls of early education), international conference acta, A.N.P.E.D.A. organiser, Paris, 2-4 November 1979, page 145.

(2) Professor J.C. LAFON « intelligibilité phonétique & acoustique » (« acousticphonetic correlates of intelligibility») Bulletin d’Audiophonologie 1979, N°5, Volume 9, page 12.

(3) Professor J.C. LAFON « amplification compensée » (« amplification with a counterbalanced order ») Bulletin d’Audiophonologie 1971, N°2, Volume 1, page 171.

(4) Professor J.C. LAFON « amplification compensée » (« amplification with a counterbalanced order ») Bulletin d’Audiophonologie 1971 N°2 Volume 1 page 160.

(5) Professor J.C. LAFON « texte sur le langage exposé oral (talk on language writing) Délémont 1977 » pp. 9-10.

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