Here’s an experiment to try next time you meet a baby, try holding a normal conversation. It is very difficult, isn’t it? Yes it is! Oh, yes it is!
When we talk to babies we all naturally switch into a high energy, sing song tone. We use simple words and short sentences. We sound excited. Our pitch rises at the end of the sentence. These particular characteristics of “parentese” or infant-directed speech (IDS) seem to be common across many languages.
A new study, published in Current Biology, has suggested there are universal changes in vocal timbre when talking to babies. Timbre describes the quality of a voice or a musical instrument. The difference between a violin and a trumpet playing the same note is a difference in timbre.
Elise Piazza, a postdoctoral researcher at the Princeton Neuroscience Institute, invited 12 English-speaking mothers to Princeton Baby Lab and recorded them talking to their babies (aged eight to 12 months) and to an adult. The recordings were converted into “vocal fingerprints” using a standard statistical method. This produces a unique frequency profile for a given speaker that can reliably discriminate one speaker from another based on timbre.
Elise and her colleagues, Marius Iordan and Casey Lew-Williams, then used a computer algorithm to compare adult and infant-directed speech. This seemed to show that all mothers consistently alter the timbre of their voice when talking to babies.
The authors ran several controls to show that this is not just a result of mothers speaking in a higher pitch to babies. But the real test came when a further 12 mothers speaking nine different languages, including Spanish, Russian and Cantonese, were also recorded. The algorithm picked up the same difference between their adult- and infant-directed speech.
Elise describes the change as a “cue mothers implicitly use to support babies’ language learning”. The next hypothesis is that infants might detect this difference to help them know when they are being addressed. The researchers are looking for ways to test this. It would be consistent with what we already know about IDS: we do it to help babies learn.
Patricia Kuhl has shown that IDS exaggerates the differences between vowel sounds, making it easier for babies to discriminate words. This pattern was found in English, Russian and Swedish. Other research found that IDS has the acoustic features of happy, adult-directed speech, and the authors said that “what is special is the widespread expression of emotion to infants in comparison with the more inhibited expression of emotion in typical adult interactions”.
Babies learning language perform some amazing feats. From the muffled confines of the womb, they have already learned enough that, at birth, they prefer their mother’s voice and her native language to another woman or another language.
Babies learn to recognise their mothers’ voices before they’re born. GagliardiImages/Shutterstock
A recent study found that premature babies in intensive care make more vocalisations in response to hearing adults’ speech. If adults stop responding, infants notice and also cease.
Testing five-month-old infants with this procedure also found that the infants ceased vocalising. Moreover, the more in tune these infants were to their caregiver’s behaviour at five months, the better their language comprehension was at 13 months.
In another charming study, researchers recorded proto-speech of three- to four-month-old infants talking to themselves. The babies expressed a full range of emotions in their squeals, growls and gurgles.
Clearing up a mystery
Incidentally, this new research may also clear up a mystery from my own work. Last year when we were helping Imogen Heap create a song that makes babies happy, we advised her to make sure she recorded it in the presence of her 18-month-old daughter. Research from the 1990s showed babies can tell the difference; they prefer singing that is genuinely infant directed. I never quite believed this at the time but now this new measure of timbre will let us test this out.
For babies, just as for adults, language is truly learned in conversation. From the very beginning, babies want to join in and proto-conversations start between mothers and their newborns; nursing mothers wait for pauses in their infants’ actions to talk to them. This new research highlights a universal signal that is there to let babies know that we are talking to them.
Yes we are! Oh, yes we are!
Caspar Addyman is a Friend of The Conversation.
Lecturer in Developmental Psychology, Goldsmiths, University of London
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Source:The Conversation com
Aga Khan Development org writes-Networkwrites:-Early childhood education:Investing in the early years
Aga Khan Foundation Reading for Children Programme, Early Childhood Development, Bihar, India.-AKDN / Mansi Midha
By the time a child reaches school age, most key brain wiring, language ability and cognitive foundations have been set in place. The early years are critical in the formation of intelligence, personality, social behaviour and physical development. Investment in the early years offers outstanding returns – both in human and financial terms. If children become confident and enthusiastic for learning early on in life, they are more likely to be better students. Children who get a good start do better in school, are healthier and function better as adults.
Recent studies, including those by Nobel laureate James Heckman, have shown that investments in childhood education are more efficient – and cost effective – than remedial programmes for adults. A 2007 UNESCO paper suggests that “one of the most compelling arguments for investment in early childhood development is that failure to do this perpetuates social and economic disparity and waste of social and human potential”.
The Aga Khan Foundation’s (AKF) early childhood efforts help children get a head start in life by bringing together international best practices in early childhood development and the needs of local contexts. The Foundation focuses on creating locally relevant curricula, experimenting with different types of training and support for parents, caregivers and pre-school teachers, and identifying successful and sustainable ways of mobilising and involving communities. Special emphasis is placed on ensuring programmes reach girls and other disadvantaged groups. Collaborative efforts with the health sector work to improve the health and nutritional status of children and mothers. The Foundation also supports the establishment and strengthening of local resource centres (governmental or non-governmental), which, over time, evolve into sustainable institutions that meet the needs of young children and their families.
Read more on AKDN org