“Parentesian” really is a lingua franca, finds a global study

We’ve all seen it, we’ve all flinched, we’ve all done it ourselves: talked to a baby like it was a baby.

“Ooo, hellooooo baby!” say, your voice lilts like an adorably accommodating Walmart clerk. Baby is stunned by your incomprehensible trill and shamelessly stupid grin, but “Baby so cuuuuute!”

Whether or not it’s helpful to know, researchers recently found that this singing baby talk — more technically known as “parent talk” — appears to be nearly universal among people around the world. In the most comprehensive 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 off-net, hunter-gatherer in Tanzania to city dwellers in Beijing.

The findings, recently published in the journal Nature Human Behavior, showed that in each of these cultures, the way parents talked and sang to their infants differed from the way they communicated with adults — and that these group-to-group differences were profoundly similar.

“We tend to speak in this higher pitch, with high variability, like, ‘Ohh, heeelloo, you’re a baaybee!'” said Courtney Hilton, a psychologist at Haskins Laboratories at Yale University and lead author of the study. Cody Moser, a graduate student studying cognitive science at the University of California, Merced, and the other lead author, added, “When people tend to produce lullabies or talk to their infants, they tend to do so at the same way. ”

The results suggest that baby talk and song serve a function independent of cultural and social forces. They provide a starting point for future baby research and to some extent address the lack of diverse representation in psychology. Making cross-cultural claims about human behavior requires studies from many different societies. Now there is a big one.

“I’m probably the author with the most articles on this topic to date, and that just blows my mind,” said Greg Bryant, a cognitive scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles who was not associated with the new research. “Anywhere in the world people talk to babies, you hear these sounds.”

Sounds are used throughout the animal kingdom to convey emotion and signal information, including incoming danger and sexual attraction. Such sounds show similarities between species: a human listener can distinguish between happy and sad sounds made by animals ranging from tits and alligators to pigs and pandas. It is therefore not surprising that human sounds also have a universally recognizable emotional valence.

Scientists have long argued that the sounds humans make to their babies serve a number of important developmental and evolutionary functions. As Samuel Mehr, a psychologist and director of the music lab at Haskins Laboratories, who designed the new study, noted, lonely human babies are “really bad at their job of staying alive.” The weird things we do with our voices when we stare at a newborn not only help us survive, but teach language and communication.

For example, parenting can help some infants remember words better and allows them to piece sounds together with mouth shapes, giving meaning to the chaos around them. Also, lullabies can soothe a crying child, and a higher-pitched voice can hold their attention better. “You can push air through your vocal tract, create these sounds and rhythms, and it’s like you’re giving the baby an analgesic,” said Dr. More.

But with these arguments, scientists, mostly in western, developed countries, have largely assumed that parents in all cultures modify their voices to talk to infants. “That was a risky assumption,” said Casey Lew-Williams, a psychologist and director of the Baby Lab at Princeton University, who did not contribute to the new study. dr Lew-Williams noted that baby talk and singing “seem to provide a gateway to language learning,” but that there are “some cultures where adults don’t talk to children that often—and where they talk to them a lot.” While theoretical consistency is nice, it runs the risk of “overwhelming the richness and structure of cultures.”

An increasingly popular joke among academics is that studying psychology is actually the study of American college students. Because white urban researchers are overrepresented in psychology, their questions and the people they include in their studies are often shaped by their culture.

“I think people don’t realize how much that ties into our understanding of behavior,” said Dorsa Amir, an anthropologist at the University of California, Berkeley, who collected records from the Shuar people of Ecuador for the new study. “But there are very different ways of being human.”

In a previous study, Dr. More a search for universal characteristics of music. Of the 315 different societies he looked at, music was present in each one. A justifying result and a rich data set, which, however, raised further questions: How similar is the music in the individual cultures? Do people in different cultures perceive the same music differently?

The new study found that parent language sounds differ in 11 ways from the conversations and songs of adults around the world. Some of these differences may seem obvious. For example, baby talk is higher pitched than adult talk, and baby song is softer than adult song. But to test whether people have an innate awareness of these differences, the researchers created a game – Who’s Listening? – played online by more than 50,000 people speaking 199 languages ​​from 187 countries. Participants were asked to determine whether a song or passage of speech was addressed to a baby or an adult.

The researchers found that listeners could tell with about 70 percent accuracy when the sounds were aimed at babies, even if 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 in India. “The essence is there.”

The acoustic analysis of the new study also listed these global peculiarities of baby and adult communication in a way that led to new questions and insights.

For example, people tend to try many different vowels and combinations when speaking to babies, “exploring the vowel space,” as Mr. Moser put it. This is similar to the way adults around the world sing to each other. The baby talk also goes very well with the song’s melody — “the ‘songification’ of speech, if you will,” said Dr. hilton.

This could possibly point to an evolutionary source of music — maybe “listening to music is one of those things that people are just wired to do,” said Dr. More.

But it is still unclear how these cross-cultural similarities fit into existing developmental theories. “The future field needs to figure out which of the things on this laundry list are important for language learning,” said Dr. Lew Williams. “And that’s why this type of work is so cool — it can spread.”

dr More agreed. “Part of being a psychologist is taking a step back and seeing how weird and incredible we are,” he said.

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