Baby Talk Crosses Language Barriers
People of Different Cultures, Languages Understand Baby Talk
WebMD News Archive
Aug. 22, 2007 -- Baby talk may be the universal language.
A new study suggests that people of different cultures recognize baby talk,
even if they speak a different language.
The results showed indigenous Shuar speakers who had also been taught
Spanish in a remote Ecuadoran village were able to distinguish English
baby-directed talk from normal adult-directed talk three-fourths of the time.
They were also able to determine the tone of the conversation, such as
disapproval or comfort, with greater ease when baby talk was spoken.
Researchers Greg Bryant and Clark Barrett, of University of California, Los
Angeles, say the findings show that the relationship between sounds and
intentions is universal because much of the meaning of language is communicated
through nonverbal cues, such as pitch, loudness, and rate of speech.
For example, when people talk to infants, regardless of the language they
speak, they tend to raise their voices to get the baby’s attention and speak
much slower to get their point across -- what most people call baby talk and
researchers call “infant-directed speech.”
Baby Talk Universal
In the study, published in Psychological Science, researchers
recorded native English-speaking mothers speaking as if they were talking to
their infant or to another adult. The tone of the talk was one of four general
categories: prohibitive (such as “Don’t touch that!”), approval, comfort, or
They played the tapes to a group of young adults in a remote Shuar village
of hunter-horticulturalists in Ecuador to determine whether the non-English
speakers could tell the difference between the categories in both types of
The study showed that the non-English speakers were able to correctly
identify baby-directed talk 75% of the time. They were also able to determine
what the general tone of the conversation was, such as whether it was one of
approval or prohibition, with much greater accuracy when the speaker spoke in
baby-directed talk rather than in adult-directed talk.
Researchers say it’s the first study to show that adults of different
cultures, languages, and societies can easily tell the difference between baby
talk and adult talk.
(Do you understand your baby's babbling? What
sounds does your baby make? Talk about it on WebMD's Parents: 9-12
Months message board.)