You know all those people that we tease behind their backs when they do “baby talk” to babies? How we feel so superior because we talk to babies like they are little adults? How we use our regular voice when addressing those little humans? Because baby talk is….well, for babies? Well, it turns out that not only do babies prefer to hear more baby-sounding voices but it’s actually beneficial to their speech development.
A new study offering insights into early language development and led by McGill University in Canada was published in the journal Developmental Science. The researchers observed and filmed the reactions of infants between the ages of four and six months (who were not yet attempting speech) while the babies listened to baby-like and adult-like sounds from a voice synthesizer. The results of the study suggest that babies prefer to listen to other babies rather than adults as they prepare to make their own speech sounds.
The researchers found that when babies listened to vowel sounds that were more baby-like (for instance, higher pitched), the infants’ attention was held longer than when the sounds had more adult-like vocal properties (for instance, lower pitched). Previous studies have also shown that babies of this age are more attracted to higher-pitched sounds. The team says “the finding is important because being attracted to infant speech sounds may be a key step in babies being able to find their own voice – it may help to kick-start the process of learning how to talk.” These discoveries increase our understanding of the complex link between speech perception and speech production in young infants. It may lead to new ways to help hearing-impaired children who may be struggling to develop language skills.
For the study, the researchers used a voice synthesizer to create vowel sounds that mimicked the voice of a baby and the voice of a woman. The experiment consisted of playing the sounds to the infants and tracking their engagement. They measured the length of time each vowel sound held the infants’ attention. This was determined by observing the the faces and body movements of the babies as they listened to each type of sound. For instance, when hearing the adult-like voices, some babies remained fairly passive and neutral but when they heard the more infant-like sounds they became more animated while moving their mouths and smiling.
This video shows one of the babies, who does not yet babble herself, as she reacts to the sounds. When ever she looks away, one sound is replaced with another. Her reactions clearly show which sounds she prefers.
The researchers say that it is possible that the babies recognize the baby-like sounds because those sounds were more like sound that they could make themselves – despite not having heard them before.
These findings also point to why adults may automatically use baby-talk when interacting with infants; the reactions of the babies is more interactive when using the higher-pitched baby talk.
Babies also spend a lot of time trying to ‘speak’ when they are alone or in places where they cannot make eye contact with others. They spend a lot of time testing their vocal chords and moving their mouths trying to discover the types of sounds they can make. For babies, using their voice is more about exploring than it is about communicating.