Baby talk: universally understood?

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Tue Aug 28 20:06:58 UTC 2007

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August 28, 2007
 Baby Talk Crosses Cultural Line By NICHOLAS BAKALAR

It may be that when adults talk to babies, they use a language that is
universally understood.

Researchers made recordings of English-speaking mothers talking to babies
and to adults, then played them to residents of a Shuar village in Morona
Santiago Province in southeastern Ecuador. The Shuar are an indigenous group
of hunter-horticulturalists who had been taught Spanish but have their own
language, and the scientists wanted to see if they could understand the
meaning, even without understanding any of the words, when adults talked to
babies in English.

The researchers recorded four utterances from each of eight English-speaking
mothers, ages 21 to 51. The mothers viewed pictures of babies to provoke
speech suggesting one of four categories of meaning: prohibition, approval,
comfort or paying attention. They were given no script, but were asked to
speak as if they were talking to their own baby, using the same phrasing and

Then the women were recorded conveying the same meanings as if speaking to
an adult. The 26 Shuar young adults were successful about three-quarters of
the time in determining whether an adult or a child was being addressed.
With adult speech, they identified the correct meaning category 64 percent
of the time, with only moderate success in identifying attention and
comfort, and very little in understanding prohibition and approval.

But when English-speaking adults talked to babies, the Shuar found it much
easier to understand. They succeeded an average of 75 percent of the time in
distinguishing the four meanings, with success rates of 78 percent in
identifying attention and 86 percent in understanding prohibition. The
in the August issue of Psychological Science.

"This is the first empirical demonstration that in a nonliterate,
nonindustrialized indigenous culture, people are able to recognize meaning
in a language they don't speak," said Gregory A. Bryant, a co-author of the
paper and an assistant professor of communications at the University of
Los Angeles. "There is variability across cultures in how much people talk
to babies, but when they do, they tend to sound very much alike."

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