Do you do baby talk?

There are vast differences in early child-rearing environments across cultures. For example, the popular French documentary “Babies,” which documents the life of infants in five different cultures, depicts the multitude of ways infants can be raised across different ecological and cultural contexts.

These differences illustrate the reality of infants growing up in distinct contexts. Anthropologists have been documenting such variability for decades producing detailed ethnographies of parenting, family life, and socialization practices across different cultural settings. Developmental psychologists have found that these early experiences shape human development.

Yet despite these fascinating differences, a whopping 95 percent of developmental science is based on only five percent of the world’s population.

The majority of developmental psychology studies are based on WEIRD societies: western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic populations. Given this imbalance, one might wonder whether our knowledge of child development extends beyond urban, North American societies. The answer is, it depends.

“Some cultures talk more or less to babies, some not at all,” said Mark VanDam, assistant professor of speech and hearing sciences in the Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine at Washington State University.

Here is a sampling of how moms and dads from around the world use infant-directed speech or “baby talk,” and why. Mothers around the world consistently alter their voices when talking to their babies, no matter what language they speak, according to a study published in October in the journal Current Biology.

Parenting Without Borders considers how parenting trends and methods differ — or don’t — around the world. Researchers recorded and analyzed the voices of 24 moms with a powerful machine-learning algorithm. Half of the women were English speakers, and the others spoke Spanish, Russian, Polish, Hungarian, German, French, Hebrew, Mandarin and Cantonese. Despite their native languages, the study showed, all of the women consistently shifted their timbre — or the tone and sound of their voice — when interacting with their infants. The researchers were surprised that this shift in sound was a consistent pattern across such a diverse range of languages, said Elise Piazza, associate research scholar at Princeton University and lead author of the study.
“After we controlled for pitch, we still found timbre differences between infant-directed speech and adult-directed speech,” Piazza said.

Though some similarities have been seen in how mothers speak to babies, studies have also spotted some cultural differences among both moms and dads. A study published in February in the journal Child Development found that dads in North America tended to slow their speech when talking to infants, whereas dads in the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu did not. Rather, they tended to shift their pitch more.

Researchers examined 30 interactions between the fathers and their infants, around 7.8 months old. More research is needed in a larger sample of fathers to determine that such differences do, indeed, exist in how these dads baby talk.

A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in November suggested that infants start understanding words around 6 months old. Some scientists argue that baby talk not only helps infants acquire language, it helps parents form a positive emotional bond with their babies, said Linda Polka, a professor in the School of Communication Sciences and Disorders at McGill University in Canada.

Other studies suggest that infants prefer high-pitched infant-directed speech and even infant-directed singing, Polka said. The reason for this preference remains complex, but research suggests that when adults shift the sound of their voices for “baby talk,” that causes them to sound smaller — as if their voice is coming from a smaller vocal tract. Babies prefer to listen to speech coming from a smaller infant talker, but we don’t know exactly why babies show this preference. Do they simply have a general ‘smaller talkers are better’ bias, or are they particularly sensitive to how big an infant is?

Whether you are talking to a baby or an adult, research suggests that there is a tendency to shift your speech to sound more like the person who you are interacting with. Goo Goo Gaa Gaa anyone?

Check out my related post: What’s in a name?

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