New research uncovers the truth about baby talk

Date: 23/05/2002

Scientists are one step closer to understanding how infants learn language following the results of a study comparing the way mothers speak to babies and to our four-legged friends.

Published in Science this month, a unique study by Professor Denis Burnham and Dr Christine Kitamura from UWS and Dr Ute Vollmer-Conna from UNSW, reveals that while there are uncanny similarities in the way we communicate with pets and babies, there's a major reason why our tots are the only ones who will learn to talk back.

The researchers compared the speech of 12 mothers to their infants, their pets and other adults. From these interactions they analysed the pitch, emotion and pronunciation of mothers' speech.

According to Professor Denis Burnham, chief researcher on the project, the study shows that while pet and baby talk often sound the same, there are subtle differences that may help babies learn language.

"As we suspected the pitch and emotional aspects of interactions between mothers and their babies and pets were very similar," he says.

"When mothers spoke to their babies and pets their voices rose and fell in similar high-pitched ululations, and pitch and emotion were much higher than when they spoke to adults.

However, the real surprise came when they looked at mothers' pronunciation.

"We found that when it comes to pronunciation, mothers exaggerated their vowels, but only when talking to their babies, not their pets or other adults," says Professor Burnham.

"What this shows is that we automatically adjust our speech to match the emotional and linguistic needs of our audience. So for both babies and pets, mothers increase the pitch and emotion in their voice because they unconsciously perceive that babies and pets look to them for attention, love and affection."

"In the case of babies we also perceive their ability for linguistic development so we only exaggerate our vowels to them in order to teach them about the language.

"So with the assistance of our animal friends, we have come much closer to understanding the subtle processes involved in how babies learn to recognise and understand the building blocks of language."

Anyone interested in viewing a copy of the Science paper can visit the UWS MARCS Auditory Laboratories website at ( see link on top right of homepage) or if you are interested in participating in language research at the MARCS labs follow the link to 'Infant Research Information' on the MARCS website or call (02) 9772 6674.

Media contacts:Professor Denis Burnham, Mobile: 0425 206 704
Lynda McKewen, Senior Media Officer, Ph: (02) 9678 7424,
Mobile: 0419 244 595