August 1, 1997 in Nation/World

Baby Talk Isn’t Silly Babble, But Speech Key, Report Says


When it comes to babies, most adults can’t help themselves. They coo and oooh and over-pronounce words like baaaallll! treeeeee! and hellooooo! in a high-pitched sing song. In short, babies bring out the babbler.

But far from being just cutesy, new scientific research to be published Friday in the journal Science indicates that baby talk, and perhaps a lot of it, is a crucial building block to help infants learn how to speak.

The study is part of what scientists call an “explosion” in understanding of how infants develop - and is one of a number of recent studies that have found that by their first birthdays, babies have begun to associate sounds with objects and can distinguish the sounds of their own native language.

Researchers studied the way mothers in the United States, Sweden and Russia spoke to their infants. In each country, the mothers naturally exaggerated the way they pronounced words and spoke brightly, about an octave higher in pitch than in usual adult speech, in short, they all naturally talked baby talk, or “parentese.”

The high pitch got the babies attention, as earlier studies have shown. And after hearing and watching their mothers form the “hyperarticulated” vowel sounds, babies learned how to form similar vowel sounds by the time they were about 20 weeks old.

“This shows babies really are being wired and sculpted by the information we put in,” said study author Patricia Kuhl of the University of Washington in Seattle. “It may not look like it, but their neurons are firing. There’s a lot going on.”

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