‘Parentese’ is actually a Lingua Franca, Global Studies

We’ve all seen it, we’ve all cringed, we’ve all done it ourselves: talk to a child like it was, you know, a baby.

“Ooooooooo darling!” you say, your voice slurred like a passionately amused Walmart employee. The baby is completely confused by your confusing fight and your shameless grin, but “baby is so cute!”

Regardless of whether it’s helpful to know that, researchers recently determined that this singing baby talk – technically known as “the mother tongue” – seems to be almost universal to people all over the world. In the largest study of its kind, more than 40 scientists helped collect and analyze 1,615 voice recordings from 410 parents on six continents, in 18 languages ​​from diverse communities: rural: rural and urban, isolated and cosmopolitan, internet and grid savvy, from hunter-gatherers in Tanzania to urban dwellers in Beijing.

The results, recently published in the journal Nature Human Behavior, show that in each of these cultures, the way parents speak and sing to their children differs from the way they communicate with adults – and the differences. that was very similar between the groups. .

“We tend to speak with higher pitch, high variability, like, ‘Oh,'” said Courtney Hilton, a psychologist at the Haskins Laboratory at Yale University and lead author of the study. , heeelloo, you are a baaybee! Cody Moser, a graduate student studying cognitive science at the University of California, Merced, and other lead author, added: “When people tend to make lullabies or tend to talk with their infants, they tend to do so in a similar fashion. “

The findings suggest that baby talk and baby songs serve a function independent of cultural and social forces. They provide a stepping stone for future research in young children and, to some extent, address the underrepresentation of diversity in psychology. Making cross-cultural claims about human behavior requires studies from many different societies. Now, there’s a big one.

“I’m probably the author with the most papers on this topic by far, and this is just blowing things up,” said Greg Bryant, a cognitive scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles. mine”. research. “Everywhere you go in the world, where people are talking to babies, you hear these sounds.”

Sound is used throughout the animal kingdom to convey emotions and signal information, including incoming danger and sexual attraction. Such sounds show similarities between species: Listeners can distinguish between happy noise and sad noise created by animals, from chicks and crocodiles to pigs and raccoons. So it may not come as a surprise that human noise also carries a recognizable emotional value.

Scientists have long argued that the sounds people make with their babies serve a number of important developmental processes and evolution function. As Samuel Mehr, a psychologist and director of the Music Lab at Haskins Lab, who conceived of the new study, notes that solitary children are “really bad at maintaining their life”. The strange things we do with our voices while staring at a newborn baby not only help us survive but also teach language and communication.

For example, the mother tongue may help some infants remember words betterand it allows them to be put together sound with mouth shape, which creates a sense of chaos around them. In addition, lullabies can soothe a crying baby and a higher-pitched voice can better capture their attention. “You can push air through your vocal tract, creating these tones and rhythms, and it’s like giving a baby painkillers,” says Dr. Mehr.

But when it comes to these arguments, scientists, mostly in Western countries, have largely assumed that parents across cultures change their voices to talk to babies. . “It’s a risky assumption,” said Casey Lew-Williams, a psychologist and director of the Baby Lab at Princeton University, who did not contribute to the new study. Dr Lew-Williams notes that baby songs and talks “seem to provide an opportunity for language learning” but “there are some cultures where adults don’t talk often to children – and where they talk a lot with them. Even though theory is consistent, he says, there is still the risk of “washing away the richness and texture of cultures”.

An increasingly common joke among academia is that psychology research is actually the study of American college students. Because white, urban-dwelling researchers are psychologically over-represented, the questions they ask and the people they include in their research are often shaped by their culture.

Dorsa Amir, an anthropologist at the University of California, Berkeley, who collected audio recordings from Shuar in Ecuador for the new study, said: We understand behavior. “But there are very different ways to be human.”

In one research in advance, Dr. Mehr led a search for the universal properties of music. Of the 315 different societies he looked at, music was present in every society. One finding that proves and a rich dataset, but one that raises more questions: How similar is music in each culture? Do people in different cultures perceive the same music differently?

In the new study, the sounds of parents’ voices were found to differ 11 ways from the voices of adults talking and singing around the world. Some of these differences seem obvious. For example, baby speech has a higher pitch than adult speech, and children’s songs are smoother than adult songs. But to test whether people have an innate perception of these differences, the researchers created a game – Who is listening? – played online by over 50,000 speakers of 199 languages ​​from 187 countries. Participants were asked to determine whether a song or a piece of speech was being addressed to an infant or an adult.

The researchers found that listeners could speak with about 70 percent accuracy when the sounds were aimed at infants, even if they were completely unfamiliar with the language and culture of their creators. Caitlyn Placek, an anthropologist at Ball State University, who helped collect recordings of the Jenu Kuruba, a tribe in India. “The essence is there.”

The new study’s audio analysis also enumerates these worldwide features of communication between young children and adults in a way that brings forth new questions and perceptions.

For example, people tend to try different vowel sounds and combinations when talking to babies, “exploring the vowel space,” as Mr. Moser puts it. This happens pretty much the way adults sing to each other around the world. The baby’s words also match the tune of the song very well – “the ‘variation’ of the speech, if you like,” says Dr. Hilton.

This could point to a growing source of music – maybe “listening to music is one of the things that humans can do,” Dr. Mehr said.

But the jury is still out on how these similarities between these cultures fit into existing theories of development. Dr Lew-Williams said: “The field of the future will have to figure out which items on this laundry list are important for language learning. “And that’s why this kind of work is so cool – it can go viral.”

Dr. Mehr agrees. “Part of being a psychologist is stepping back and seeing how weird and amazing we are,” he says.

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