Baby Talk Crosses Language Barriers

People of Different Cultures, Languages Understand Baby Talk

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on August 22, 2007
From the WebMD Archives

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 attention.

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 speech.

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.)

Show Sources

SOURCES: Bryant, G. Psychological Science, August 2007; vol 18: pp 746-751. News release, Association for Psychological Science.

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