Awws and Coos: Baby talk and its role in language learning

Babies are cute, and so is their babble. And just as doting parents, siblings and relatives often mimic the ridiculous expressions on a baby’s face in an attempt to earn a giggle, they also imitate the cute coos of a baby back to them. This is actually a very important scientific phenomenon, and new voice-recognition technologies trained to recognize baby talk  and analyze its emotional/timbre qualities are shedding new light into just how important it is, both in terms of differences in speech and in the development of babies themselves.

As Nicola Davis writes for The Guardian informs, in order to acquire data about baby talk, Princeton University scientists first asked mothers to interact with their babies in the same way they would at home. From this, they recorded moms baby talking to their children. Then, mothers were interviewed about their child’s daily routine, and this is how scientists acquired data of the mothers’ speech while talking to adults. Scientists repeated this experiment in four languages: English, Spanish, Mandarin and Hebrew.

Then came the voice recognition software. Snippets of recordings were first finely analyzed for the timbre by the recognition machine, an innate quality of voice that determines how nasal, raspy or velvety it is. The voices were sorted according to timbre and fed to the software to see if it could distinguish between normal talk and baby talk and between mothers. And turns out it could - a whopping 70 percent of the time.

This indicates that innate qualities of voice play a role in how infants recognize voices. A mother constantly changes the timbre and pitch of her voice with baby talk, as Current Biology mentions, and these changes are much more pronounced in baby talk.

And this may actually help infants learn language faster and better because as CNN mentions, infants start learning language by first learning to differentiate the “rhythm and intonation of the speech stream,” that is to say, the structural elements of the language. The different timbre of baby talk makes it much easier to detect the structural elements.

Not only do changes in timbre allow babies to better pick up on the rhythm of language, but it may also help infants learn to pick up on the emotions in language. Not surprisingly, emotion is one of the first qualities that babies learn to pick up on when they hear voices, and as Parenting Science notes, the exaggerated, melodious tunes of baby talk make emotion-recognition much easier for babies. Even adults who heard baby talk in a different language were able to discern the emotions in it better.

Another helpful quality of baby talk is the speed and words. Baby talk tends to be much slower than adult speech, and not only making it easier for babies to catch where words begin and end but allowing them enough time to accurately observe the mouth’s shape as words are spoken. This is an essential stage of language-acquisition: babies often try to imitate those shapes and try to form words. The key words in baby talk are simpler, with fewer syllables, and also conveniently placed so that babies catch on to them faster. The CNN article contrasts baby talk, “Aw, can you see the doggie?” with the adult, “The dog is eating a bone.” The dog is the important part of the sentence, and when placed at the end and said slower, with fewer additional sounds, babies pick up on the word and start repeating it much sooner.

Baby talk is definitely helpful to babies, and babies prefer it too. Ph.D. Gwen Dewar writes for Parenting Science that since it is so distinct and so emotionally charged, baby talk captures babies’ attention much faster. Babies also feel more at ease with someone who is cooing at them; since baby talk is spoken in an higher pitch, it seems less threatening to babies. As AP Biology teacher says, “baby talk tends to be happy, very light… the tone of it might help babies feel more secure, more safe.” Babies may prefer the higher pitch for another reason as well: since babies are experimenting with their own voice as they learn language, they prefer baby-like voices.

In a sense, baby talk is like the training wheels on a bike: before you can actually start zooming around with ease on two wheels (aka, start understanding full blown fast adult language), you have to learn the skill of basic balancing (aka, recognition of simple vowels and rhythms) first. It is almost universal - the changes in timbre that the Princeton University scientists observed were consistent across several languages - and as such, there are some very interesting applications of it.

Princeton co-researcher Elsie Piazza, observes that thanks to the changes in difference noticed by the voice recognition technology, a timbre of talk which matches the timbre used by baby-talking parents can be used to create an artificial voice in educational tools for children, helping them enhance communication skills and even learn second languages. And since this timbre catches babies’ attention, thanks to its emotional context, perhaps it can be used to keep babies’ interest in what they are learning. The possibilities are diverse and very promising: as Mrs. Chow notes, “it can be used for a lot of analytical purposes.”

Most of us probably have never spent any amount of time analyzing the unintelligible coos that we make while talking to babies. Some cringe at the thought of mumbling gibberish at an infant, and some roll their eyes, but it may come as a surprise to all that baby talk might play an incredibly important role in how babies learn language. Baby talk is one of those rare things that happen to be natural, cute and educational at the same time. So the next time you meet a baby, let your inner child sing.