- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The universal language is not English or Esperanto. It’s baby talk.

Research released yesterday by a pair of California psychologists reveals that the loving chatter of parent to offspring translates from one culture to the next with ease.

Comforting coos, cautionary cues and other “infant-directed speech” is virtually the same in English as it is in Shuar — a dialect spoken in a small pocket of southeastern Ecuador. Researchers Greg Bryant and Clark Barrett of the University of California at Los Angeles journeyed to the remote rain forest, toting multiple, unscripted recordings of American mothers conversing with infants.

The Shuar parents understood the meaning of the baby talk with 75 percent accuracy, despite the fact that they had never heard English and could neither read nor write.

“We were certainly charmed by our results. We feel that the way people talk to babies — or anybody that needs special cues to understand intentions — will be quite similar anywhere you go. The sound of our voices relates to our communicative intention,” Mr. Bryant said yesterday.



“So in that way, yes, baby talk is the universal language. And it doesn’t stop with communication between people. People talk to animals that way, too, and for a very similar reason: When the message is in the melody, you have to sing the right song to get your point across,” he said.

Mr. Bryant is conducting a similar experiment in Africa.

“There are culturally specific traditions as well, but in this work we are interested in what people everywhere share,” he added.

“This vocal behavior likely exists universally as a species-typical trait,” the study said, and part of a “family of signals.”

Seems the parents of our species have strong commonalities when there is a need to comfort, warn, praise or greet a baby — the four types of typical speech patterns tested. Baby talk is distinctive and found in all languages, with only subtle variations, and is generally higher in pitch, sometimes exaggerated and “more musical” than what is found in adult conversations, the study said.

The universal “no no,” the researchers found, is punctuated by “staccatolike bursts” and a lower tone. The “no no,” in fact, was the most recognized of the four speech patterns, familiar to 86 percent of the Shuar parents. The study was published in Psychological Science, an academic journal.

Others are plumbing the mysteries of baby talk.

Earlier this month, a University of Washington study found that well-intentioned parents who forgo baby talk for educational baby videotapes can seriously compromise their child’s vocabulary. Neuroscientists at the University of British Columbia, meanwhile, revealed in May that babies as young as 4 months are able to tell whether a speaker has switched from one language to another.

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