Academic journal article Canadian Psychology

What Studies of Communication with Infants Ask Us about Psychology: Baby-Talk and Other Speech Registers

Academic journal article Canadian Psychology

What Studies of Communication with Infants Ask Us about Psychology: Baby-Talk and Other Speech Registers

Article excerpt


This article begins with a brief review of research concerning the possible functional roles of the prosodic aspects of infant - directed speech ("baby - talk"), showing that this style of speaking could have both attentional and affective functions (in addition to linguistic ones). It is then argued that studies of other speech registers could profit from taking similar approaches and even using similar techniques to those used in infant - directed speech research to tease apart the linguistic, attentional and affective components of these other speaking styles. Nursing - home register is used to exemplify the importance of examining the social, emotional and linguistic ramifications of a communication style separately.

Studies of the special speech register we use with infants both inform us about psychology in general and raise questions about other communicative behaviours that might not have been asked if it were not for these developmental studies. Since knowing what questions to ask is often the keystone to important research, this is an important contribution developmental psychology can make to psychology. The methods used in infant - directed speech studies also suggest how questions about other styles of verbal communication might best be answered.

Baby Register

One of the more interesting features of interactions with babies is the particular way in which people modify their speech when addressing infants. This type of speech, which is usually referred to as "baby - talk" or "motherese", differs from normal adult - directed talk in many ways (in the order of 100 documented characteristics, Brown, 1986) including having simplified syntax, shorter utterances, more questions, more repetition, and special prosodic features. Since not only mothers but all adults, and even preschool children have been shown to use this specific style of speech when addressing infants, it is more appropriately referred to as "infant - directed speech" or "infant - directed talk" (Werker & McLeod, 1989).

The characteristic prosodic features of infant - directed talk include higher pitch, exaggerated pitch modulation, elongated vowels, longer pauses and increased rhythmicity: What Darwin (1877) called the "sweet music of the species". These characteristic modifications are found in a wide range of diverse languages such as Japanese, French, Italian, German, Mandarin and English (e.g., Fernald et al., 1989); a fact that has led people to speculate that infant - directed talk prosody may be an important functional aspect of the infant's social environment(f.1).

Three categories of functions have been suggested for infant - directed talk prosody. 1) Linguistic: These modifications simplify and highlight relevant linguistic components of speech. 2) Attentional: The modifications may be effective in gaining and maintaining infants' attention. 3) Affective: The modifications may contribute to positive affective interactions between parents and infants. Note that these are not mutually exclusive functions.


To examine the evidence for the latter two possible functions for infant - directed talk, Janet Werker and I did several experiments that suggest ways in which speech registers more generally might be studied. Our first simple experiment was designed to determine if infants prefer to attend to infant - directed over adult - directed talk when the speaker is a male. Prior to our work, fourmonth old infants had been shown to preferentially attend to infant - directed over adult - directed talk when spoken by a female (e.g., Fernald, 1985), however there were no similar studies published using male speakers.

The stimuli used in this first study were audio - video recordings of one actor and one actress reciting an identical script to both a six - month old (in infant - directed prosody), and to an adult (in adult - directed prosody). By having an identical script, we controlled for many linguistic differences between conditions, and by using video tapes we ensured that subjects don't influence the speaker and that all subjects within a treatment condition get the same stimuli. …

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