We’ve all seen it, we’ve all cracked up on it, we’ve all done it ourselves: talk to a baby like it’s, you know, a baby.
“Ooo, hello baby! you say, your voice singing like that of a very accommodating Walmart employee. Baby is completely taken aback by your unintelligible chirp and shameless smile, but “baby so cuuuuuute!”
Regardless of whether it helps to find out, researchers recently determined that this baby-singing speech — more technically known as “parentais” — appears to be nearly universal for humans around 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 and urban, isolated and cosmopolitan, internet-savvy and out of the network. network, from hunter-gatherers in Tanzania to city dwellers in Beijing.
The findings, published recently in the journal Nature Human Behavior, showed that in each of these cultures, the way parents talked and sang with their infants differed from the way they communicated with adults – and that these differences were deeply similar. from one group to another. .
“We tend to speak in this higher tone, with a lot of variability, like, ‘Ohh, heeelloo, you’re a baaybee!’,” said Courtney Hilton, a psychologist at Yale University’s Haskins Laboratories and lead author. of the study. Cody Moser, a graduate student in cognitive science at the University of California, Merced, and the other lead author, added, “When people tend to produce lullabies or talk to their babies, they tend to do the same. ”
The results suggest that baby talk and baby songs have a function independent of cultural and social forces. They offer a starting point for future research on babies and, to some extent, address the lack of diverse representation in psychology. Making cross-cultural statements about human behavior requires study in many different societies. Now there’s a big one.
“I’ve probably authored the most papers on this topic so far, and it just blows my mind,” said Greg Bryant, a cognitive scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, which was not associated with the new search. “Anywhere you go in the world, where people talk to babies, you hear these sounds.”
Sound is used throughout the animal kingdom to convey emotions and signal information, including impending danger and sexual attraction. Such sounds have similarities across species: a human listener can distinguish between happy and sad noises made by animals, from chickadees and alligators to pigs and pandas. It is therefore not surprising that human noises also carry a commonly recognizable emotional valence.
Scientists have long argued that the sounds humans make with their babies serve a number of important developmental and evolutionary functions. As noted by Samuel Mehr, a psychologist and director of the Music Lab at Haskins Laboratories who designed the new study, lonely human babies are “really bad at their job of staying alive.” The weird things we do with our voices when we watch a newborn not only help us survive, but also teach language and communication.
For example, parents can help some infants better remember words and allow them to piece together sounds with mouth shapes, which makes sense of the chaos around them. Also, lullabies can soothe a crying baby and a higher pitched voice can hold their attention better. “You can get air through your vocal pathways, create these tones and rhythms, and it’s like giving the baby painkiller,” Dr. Mehr said.
But in making these arguments, scientists, mostly in developed Western countries, have widely assumed that parents in all cultures modify their voices to speak to infants. “It was a risky assumption,” said Casey Lew-Williams, a psychologist and director of Princeton University’s Baby Lab, who did not contribute to the new study. Dr Lew-Williams noted that baby talk and songs “seem to provide an on-ramp to language learning” but that “there are some cultures where adults don’t talk to children as often – and where they talk to them a lot.” Theoretical consistency, while nice, he said, risks “sweeping away the richness and texture of cultures.”
An increasingly popular joke among academics holds that the study of psychology is actually the study of American undergraduates. Because urban white researchers are overrepresented in psychology, the questions they ask and the people they include in their studies are often shaped by their culture.
“I think people don’t realize how much this affects how we understand behavior,” said Dorsa Amir, an anthropologist at the University of California, Berkeley, who collected recordings of the Shuar in Ecuador for the new study. “But there are very different ways of being human.”
In a previous study, Dr. Mehr conducted research on the universal characteristics of music. Of the 315 different societies he examined, music was present in every one. A supporting discovery and a rich dataset, but one that raised more questions: How similar is music in each culture? Do people from different cultures perceive the same music differently?
In the new study, the sounds of parentais were found to differ in 11 ways from the words and songs of adults around the world. Some of these differences may seem obvious. For example, baby lyrics are higher pitched than adult lyrics, and baby songs are softer than adult songs. But to test whether people have an innate awareness of these differences, the researchers created a game – Who’s Listening? – which has been played online by over 50,000 people speaking 199 languages from 187 countries. Participants had to decide whether a song or a passage of speech was addressed to a baby or an adult.
The researchers found that listeners were able to tell with around 70% accuracy when sounds were intended for babies, even when they were completely unfamiliar with the language and culture of the person making them. “The style of the music was different, but the vibe, for lack of a scientific term, felt the same,” said Caitlyn Placek, an anthropologist at Ball State University who helped collect recordings of the Jenu Kuruba, a tribe of India. “The main thing is there.”
The acoustic analysis of the new study also cataloged these global features of infant and adult communication in a way that prompted new questions and realizations.
For example, people tend to try out many different vowel sounds and combinations when talking to babies, “exploring vowel space,” as Moser put it. It’s quite similar to how adults sing to each other all over the world. The baby talk also closely matches the song’s melody — “the ‘songification’ of speech, if you will,” Dr. Hilton said.
This could potentially point to a source of music development — perhaps “listening to music is one of those things that humans are just hardwired to do,” Dr. Mehr said.
But the jury is still out on how these cross-cultural similarities fit into existing theories of development. “The field in the future will need to determine which of the items on this laundry list are important for language learning,” Dr Lew-Williams said. “And that’s why this kind of work is so cool – it can spread.”
Dr. Mehr agreed. “Part of being a psychologist is stepping back and seeing how weird and amazing we are,” he said.