Phonological models of early word learning often assume that child forms can be understood as structural mappings from their adult targets. In contrast, the whole-word phonology model (Waterson, 1971, Ferguson & Farwell, 1975, Macken, 1979) suggests that on beginning word production children represent adult targets as holistic units, reflecting not the exact sound sequence but only the most perceptually salient elements or those that align with their own vocal patterns. Here we ask whether the predictions of the whole-word model are supported by data from children learning Japanese or Mandarin, both languages with phonotactic structures differing from any so far investigated from this perspective. The Japanese child word forms are found to include some characteristics suggestive of whole-word representation, but in Mandarin we find little or no such evidence. Instead, some children are found to make idiosyncratic use of whole syllables, substituting them for target syllables that they match in neither onset nor rime. This result, which neither model anticipates, forces reconsideration of a key tenet of the whole-word model — that early word production is based on word-size holistic representations; instead, at least in some languages, the syllable may serve as the basic representational unit for child learners.