Baby Talk.

Lauren Vinopal reports for Fatherly about a recent study, “The ecology of prelinguistic vocal learning: parents simplify the structure of their speech in response to babbling,” by Steven L. Elmlinger, Jennifer A. Schwade, and Michael H. Goldstein (Journal of Child Language 46.5, September 2019 , pp. 998-1011):

“Infants are actually shaping their own learning environments in ways that make learning easier to do,” study co-author Steven Elmlinger, a psychology graduate student at Cornell University, said in a statement. […]

“We know that parents’ speech influences how infants learn — that makes sense — and that infants’ own motivations also change how they learn,” Elmlinger said. “But what hasn’t been studied is the link between how infants can change the parents, or just change the learning environment as a whole. That’s what we’re trying to do.”

To get a better idea of the purpose of babies babbling, Elmlinger and his team observed 30 infant-mother pairs in a play space for two 30 minute increments, two days in a row. Nine and 10-month-old infant participants were free to roam and play with toys and animal posters, which were in the room, and their speech was recorded with a hidden wireless microphone in their overalls. Mothers had microphones as well and the sessions were recorded on video. Researchers measured parents’ syntax and vocabulary, as well as changes in how babies babbled from the first to the second day.

Data indicated that when babies babbled, moms tended to respond with less complex words, more single word sentences, and shorter words all around. The more parents did this, the faster the infants picked up new speech sounds during the second play session. The results also showed that single word utterances might have the biggest impact on babies and their ability to learn language, so that may be exactly what they’re asking for with all the babbling. Elmlinger suspects that they are likely telling mom and dad to do something and that may be it.

The research is still preliminary, further studies are needed, you know the drill.

Comments

  1. This study is based on infants who babble and not all infants do this. The first utterances of some are reasonably-formed words – some even simple sentences – in response to their parents. Most parents use tone of voice, sound, single words, emphasis, repetition – whatever works with their child.

  2. Good point.

  3. I don’t have children but over the years I have raised a number of cats, and now I fear I have been doing it wrong. I have always talked to kittens and cat in an adult voice — “would you like tuna this morning, or are you in the mood for chicken?” — and they have never learned even a solitary word of English. Instead I just get puzzled looks and a variety of imploring noises.

    But then again, as Wittgenstein himself supposedly said, even if a kitty-cat could speak English we wouldn’t understand what it said.

  4. Stu Clayton says:

    Sometimes one must stoop to conquer. But as to their learning English, what for ? Every helping of tuna is already pregnant with meaning, and you have clearly mastered the lingo of imploring noises.

  5. I have read that cats prefer soft, high-pitched voices and are repelled by loud, low-pitched ones (which, alas, describes my usual form of speech), but I don’t always remember to oblige them.

  6. But as to their learning English, what for ?

    To see if old Ludwig was right, of course.

  7. Stu Clayton says:

    Ingenious plan ! To a cat, die Welt ist alles, was das Fell ist.

  8. Note I see why cats pass over so many things in silence.

  9. I have always talked to kittens and cat in an adult voice — “would you like tuna this morning, or are you in the mood for chicken?” — and they have never learned even a solitary word of English. Instead I just get puzzled looks and a variety of imploring noises.

    This is where you’re going wrong. It’s nothing to do with your choice of language, rather that you’re giving said cats too many choices. Try telling them something like, “Fish. Take it or leave it” or simply, “Food.” They may or may not master the concept “fish” or “food” but they will learn from your tone of voice and general demeanour that you are in control, which is important when dealing with truculent cats.

  10. Alas, we lost that battle years ago. The cats are fully aware that they’re in control.

  11. I read somewhere that cats meow in imitation of human speech. They don’t meow to one another. I’m not sure I believe it, because kittens meew almost from day one. This is really something for Chomsky.

  12. Yes, let him spend his time investigating cats and leave people alone.

  13. …because kittens meew almost from day one.

    Kittens make squealy noises to call for their mamas, but in the absence of humans those sounds don’t evolve into the meowing that we know and love. Truly feral cats, I think, don’t make the various cute noises we associate with domestic cats.

    Perhaps this contradicts Wittgenstein: Cats have learned to speak to humans, and we understand (imperfectly) what they say.

  14. Note I see why cats pass over so many things in silence.

    Whereof a cat cannot speak, thereof it must be silent.

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