a special program of the National Emergency Medicine Association (NEMA)

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Week: 591.7 

Guest: Jean Andruski, Linguist, Eloquent Technologies, Ithaca, NY 

Topic: Babyspeak study 

Host/Producer: Steve Girard 

NEMA: We’ve all done it...and we always laugh when we see someone doing it on television. It’s just so darn cute. It’s babyspeak, you know, the way we slide into a different mode of communication when we talk to children in their infancy to around one year old. Well, a new study has found that the way that parents, specifically, speak to their babies carries a universality...a common way of reaching and relating to that child...even across borders and cultural barriers. Today, we have Jean Andruski, a linguist with Eloquent Technologies in Ithaca, New York. Jean, let’s talk about the background of this topic...and the interest you found in it through your research with Dr. Pat Kuhl of the University of Washington...  

ANDRUSKI: Well, you have to imagine that an infant...these are very young infants, they’re between two and five months of age...is listening to speech, and it’s simply a stream of sound. It’s something like, if you’re put into a room with a bunch of video tapes or something along that line...of people speaking a language you know absolutely nothing about. And somehow you have to start figuring out what this language means. And on obvious place to start, at least for adults, is to start learning the meaning of individual words...once you know the meanings of a few words, you can start to break things up (into words?), and figure out sentence meaning. And that’s also a possibility for an infant, but one of the things that we’ve learned in the last decade or so, is that infants are actually learning things about the speech sounds in their native language, by the time they’re six months old. And six months is too young to know very much about meaning. So, we were very interested in what happens with speech and infants before they’re six months old. And one of the places we wanted to start was to look at the way people actually speak to their infants, to see if there is something different about the way people speak to their infants as compared to the way they would speak to another adult.  

NEMA: I know this wasn’t part of the study...but one of the things that drew me to this story is that I noticed how even people who don’t have contact with kids change their speech patterns when they begin to relate to that child...almost as if we were programmed to attempt communication and teaching. And in the study, published by the way in the journal Science a few weeks ago, showed how parents in different countries use the same kinds of speech patterns and techniques to talk to their babies..  

ANDRUSKI: Well, this kind of speech, at the very least, seems to be extremely common...we don’t know for certain that it’s universal, and we certainly don’t know for sure that it’s programmed into us...but every single mother that we looked at switched to this sort of speech when she started talking to her baby. And although there were really strong differences in the degree to which it was noticeable..though the American mothers tended to use a much more dramatic change in the pitch of their voice...a lot more up and down change in the pitch of their voice than did the Swedish and Russian mothers, but everybody did precisely the same thing when it came to the acoustic changes, the changes that we think that will probably make a difference for the infant. So, it’ll be interesting to see just how universal that is...people seem to be completely unaware that that particular change is happening.  

NEMA: Let’s define the ways in which the mothers change their speech when they talk to their babies...the parameters of the study you were part of ...and any differences cross culturally....  

ANDRUSKI: Well, the things that are typical in what we call "mother-ese" or "parent-ese" speech are: switching so that you’re using a much more sing-song voice, bigger increases in the pitch or decreases in the pitch...so rather than saying something like ‘baby’, you’d probably say "Baaybee’. That also comes with some elongation of all the speech sounds, and it also tends to come with things like much simpler sentences when you’re talking to a baby. And we found the most universal quality in the three countries that we looked at was the elongation of duration...that was the most dramatic change in all the mothers’ speech across the three countries. They all did the same thing, though, when it comes to the amount of sing-song in their voice...it increased when they talked to their babies. They also did simplify the sentences, but there were some fairly noticeable differences between the American mothers and the Russian and Swedish mothers, who tended to be less sing-song when they were talking to their babies.  

NEMA: Those results were charted, I understand, using a acoustic graph...a small triangle resulted during adult to adult speech...and a much larger triangle for mom’s talking to babies...and the cross cultural similarities first jumped out at you there...  

ANDRUSKI: That was the really new finding in our work....was that acoustically, the mothers in all three countries made their vowels better separated from each other, and what we assume may be going on is that when these vowels are spoken more clearly, it’s easier for the baby to start figuring out exactly which vowel sounds the language has. But that we still have to show yet.  

NEMA: Of course...this brings up the question about parents who consciously decide they won’t use baby speak...and whether or not this affects a child’s ability to be engaged with the parent, and to learn the necessary building blocks of the language...  

ANDRUSKI: Those are precisely the questions that we have to start looking at next. One thing that was noticeable in our study, which makes me think that this change in the acoustic structure of vowels may be more universal even than the change to the sing-song quality. We noticed mothers who really didn’t change their intonation patterns, did do the same thing acoustically with the vowels, so it won’t surprise me if we find that parents and other adults who have made the decision, a conscious decision to just talk to their babies like an adult, rather than use this baby talk, are actually making the same kinds of acoustic changes to the vowels, so it’s easy enough to say a clearer vowel, without using sing-song speech. It’s just as easy to do that as it is to use the sing-song speech, in effect, So, I won’t be surprised if we find that the same acoustic change is there, even in parents who don’t want to talk what they think of as ‘baby talk’ with their babies.  

NEMA: I guess I’m one of those who didn’t go overboard on the sing song qualities...I wonder if singing also gets across some of those basic linguistic patterns, because as I sang to my kids, well...the way the songs are written, they emphasize certain sounds to go with the music and the message....  

ANDRUSKI: Well, my own personal guess is that a lot of what’s going on is that in terms of the ways that we actually articulate speech, in terms of the speed that your mouth has to move around at, it’s easier to reach these clear articulatory targets when you’re speaking a little more slowly. And it doesn’t take that much, in other words, you could be speaking substantially slower to a baby than to an adult, without ever really registering that that’s what you were doing. And my guess is that it’s going to turn out to be these durational changes...the fact that we’re very likely to slow down our speech a little bit when we talk to a baby, that’s most closely tied with the production of these clear acoustic targets. And I think exactly the same thing probably happens when you’re singing...I don’t know anybody who’s looked at that, but I suspect that’s the case. Another interesting thing is that ...one of things that we know about this "parentese" method of speech is that babies like listening to it. They like to hear these melodic changes and the rhythm of this speech and so on...and one of the things that may be going on is that parents, being very aware of what’s happening with their babies after a pretty short time of having it around, like very much to get the babies attention. And one way to get that baby’s attention...to get it looking at you, and smiling at you, and to have really made contact with the baby is your style of speech. And I don’t think there’s any saying that parentese is the only way to get your baby’s attention, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this pleasant, deliberate kind of speech is exactly the kind of thing that they like to hear... so you may get the baby’s attention without the sing-song quality, if you’re using these kinds of clear acoustic targets and slow speech...and whatever gets their attention, it’s probably working.  

NEMA: Though we’ll have to wait for more study to find out what this innate tutorial does for the child...we at least seem to have a hunch that talking to the baby allows it to relate to the world around it...and be taken into the society of family and friends slowly.  

ANDRUSKI: I think that’s a very good way to put it...at the very least, you’re getting their attention, you’re making that social contact with them, and providing them with that emotional and social support that it going to be very important to them.  

NEMA: Some people include the ‘oochie, coochie, coos...’ as babytalk...but that’s not what we’ve been talking about....  

ANDRUSKI: One thing that’s kind confusing is that most of the press have called this baby talk...but yet there are two different things that people think of as ‘babytalk’...one is what we were talking about with this parentese speech, where you switch to a sing-song voice and lengthen your vowels and things like that...and the other is what a lot of people seem to do, especially when a child reaches about one or two years of age, is that instead of articulating more clearly, they actually articulate less clearly, and they’ll say things like ‘wiwul’ for ‘little’...and that’s definitely not what we’re talking about. So, I think that if there is something in here that’s good for the baby, it’s in what we call the ‘parentese’, and not what most people think of as ‘babytalk’.  

NEMA: Our thanks to Jean Andruski...a linguistic researcher with Eloquent Technologies in Ithaca, New York.  

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NEMA: Thanks for joining us for today’s program. If you have any comments or suggestions, contact this station. Or visit our home page at: www.nemahealth.org/ ...for a look at transcripts of this or past programs, or to find out more about the National Emergency Medicine Association. I’m Steve Girard at The Heart of the Matter.