‘Baby talk’ may sound silly to adults, but researchers have now found that it plays an important role in language learning and highlighting the structure of language.
Researchers from Princeton University in the US have found that mothers change their ‘vocal timbre’ when talking to their baby and in doing so, they help their baby’s ability to pick up language.
The timbre shift was consistent across women who speak 10 languages, including English, and the differences are strong enough to be reliably picked out by a machine learning algorithm, according to the study which was published in the journal Current Biology.
“We’ve known for a long time that adults change the way they speak when they are addressing babies,” said Jenny Saffran, a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “They speak more slowly, use shorter sentences, talk at a higher pitch and swoop their pitch up and down more often than when they are speaking to other adults.”
What sets this work apart, she added was that “this is the first study to ask whether mothers also change the timbre of their voice, manipulating the kinds of features that differentiate musical instruments from one another. This is fascinating because clearly speakers are not aware of changing their timbre, and this new study shows that it is a highly reliable feature of the way we speak to babies.”
Elise Piazza, a postdoctoral research associate with the Princeton Neuroscience Institute (PNI) and her colleagues, invited 12 English-speaking women into the Princeton Baby Lab, where researchers study how babies learn to see, talk and understand the world.
The researchers recorded the mothers while they played with or read to their 7- to 12-month-old infants and while they spoke to an adult experimenter.
They found that the mothers’ speech timbre differed enough that a computer algorithm could learn to reliably classify infant- and adult-directed speech, even using just one second of recorded speech.
“We wondered if this might generalize to mothers who aren’t speaking English,” she said. “So we took a second set of 12 mothers, who did not speak English as their native language, and asked them only to speak in their native, non-English language in all of the recordings. So now we have this new, rich dataset of recordings from Mandarin, Polish, Russian — nine different languages in all.”
When they looked at the data, the researchers found that this timbre shift between adult- and child-directed speech was “highly consistent” across languages from around the world - Cantonese, French, German, Hebrew, Hungarian, Mandarin, Polish, Russian and Spanish.
These shifts in timbre may represent a universal form of communication with infants, according to Ms Piazza.
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