Baby, talk to me
September 18, 2019 8:34 AM   Subscribe

When babies babble, they are communicating exactly what they want. Even if they don't know it, parents are listening. (Fatherly summary) “Infants are actually shaping their own learning environments in ways that make learning easier to do,” study co-author Steven Elmlinger, a psychology graduate student at Cornell University, said in a statement. The report -- The ecology of prelinguistic vocal learning: parents simplify the structure of their speech in response to babbling (Journal of Child Language; full PDF) More from Cornell's B.A.B.Y. Lab from prior studies.
posted by filthy light thief (27 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
 
Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, my diminutive neonate, ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.
posted by benzenedream at 9:40 AM on September 18, 2019 [7 favorites]


Enjoying our granddaughter's first year-and-a-half, it became very clear quite early that she was, in fact, trying to communicate with us. This became crystal clear when we recognized she was slowly starting to use inflections on various syllables, though it was all still babble.

I recall we definitely simplified our speech with her, but never resorted to "baby talk". In a way, it helps you re-learn how to focus and refine your thoughts to be more clearly understood.
posted by Thorzdad at 9:44 AM on September 18, 2019 [4 favorites]


I just asked my mom if she used baby talk with me, to which she replied "NEVER!" I've been attempting to apply the same principle when interacting with my nephew. Following his line of sight often aids in comprehending what his babble means.
posted by grumpybear69 at 9:49 AM on September 18, 2019 [4 favorites]


My favourite insight around babbling came from Oliver Sack's "Seeing Voices", where he notes that deaf babies babble in the same way that hearing babies do, only they do so using their hands rather than their voice - hearing parents have to tune into this.
posted by not_that_epiphanius at 10:19 AM on September 18, 2019 [11 favorites]


I LOVE listening to babies and toddlers babble. If I had to do it all over again, I'd be a speech-language pathologist or linguist studying this stuff. One of my favorite things is to look at my son's old baby videos and see how much he was communicating pre-speech, in ways that I didn't even realize at the time. Sneaky babies!
posted by schwinggg! at 10:27 AM on September 18, 2019 [4 favorites]


I was always curious about the babbling our daughter did by herself in her crib at night. We got a bit of babble almost every night through the baby monitor after lights out. We always said she was processing her day, remembering things she'd seen or done, but it's possible she just liked the sounds. It was really pleasant to hear either way.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 10:29 AM on September 18, 2019 [9 favorites]


I just asked my mom if she used baby talk with me, to which she replied "NEVER!" I've been attempting to apply the same principle when interacting with my nephew.

It makes sense to ditch the baby talk when the kid is old enough, but don't knock baby talk when talking to babies! Baby talk is great! This is mentioned in the linked article but just briefly: speaking to babies in baby talk ("motherese") is very good for the baby and is thought to lead to better language development. There's a reason it's cross-cultural and it comes so automatically to us. Cooing sing-song holds a baby's attention better and makes it easier for babies to learn where one word ends and another begins.
posted by painquale at 10:38 AM on September 18, 2019 [16 favorites]


Language progression with our toddler:

1 year: Dukka dukka dukka!
1.5 years: Go-go-eesh!
2 years: Yesh (instead of yes).
3 years: No, mommy, those aren't your arms! Those are your shoulder-booms!

One of my favorite recent linguistic stages was when our kid would get upset when you told him he was [adjective], like cute or big. He would stomp his foot and say, "NO, I'M [KID MACHINE]." Because he didn't yet understand the concept of adjectives and descriptions. And then one day, he woke up, and he knew that trucks could be red, skies could be blue, and he could be cute.

He also goes to a Spanish-immersion day care, and I'm tickled every time I hear him use Spanish, because somehow, this little Jewish-Norwegian-Chinese-American kid who has spent his entire life in the Mid-Atlantic is picking up an Argentinean accent from his main teacher.
posted by joyceanmachine at 10:46 AM on September 18, 2019 [20 favorites]


I'm reminded of that viral video from a couple months ago with the baby babbling and his father carrying on a whole conversation in response as they watch TV.

One of my favorite recent linguistic stages was when our kid would get upset when you told him he was [adjective], like cute or big. He would stomp his foot and say, "NO, I'M [KID MACHINE]." Because he didn't yet understand the concept of adjectives and descriptions.

One of my favorite moments with one of my neighbors - another family in this building has two daughters, and when their oldest was about three her mother re-introduced me to her a couple times when we ran into each other in the hallway - "This is Ms. EC, she's our neighbor upstairs."

The next few times after that, whenever that little girl saw me she would say "Hi, you're my neighbor!" And I'd usually just say something like "that's right!" But then one time, when she said "Hi, you're my neighbor!" I answered with, "that's right, and you're MY neighbor!"

She blinked, stared at me a long moment, then frowned and said, "No, you're my neighbor...." and then walked away confused.

That child is about 14 now and would probably just die if she knew I was telling this story
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:07 AM on September 18, 2019 [18 favorites]


NO, I'M [KID MACHINE]

There's a famous Sesame Street story about the show's writers having to punt on an episode where Big Bird wanted a "real" name and wandered the neighborhood quizzing the other residents about what it might be. The pint-sized test audience found it incomprehensible -- his name was "Big Bird".
posted by Quindar Beep at 11:16 AM on September 18, 2019 [5 favorites]


> I'm reminded of that viral video from a couple months ago with

Peanut Butter Baby and am always sad that mom doesn't respond properly to Ethan's query about putting it on his face :/
posted by Ogre Lawless at 11:24 AM on September 18, 2019 [3 favorites]


joyceanmachine, I'm always tickled to remember when our nephew was little and just learning to call my husband Uncle C. C responded with "hi, Nephew N!" to which he got a FURIOUS reply that N is NOT A NEPHEW.

I think I do a pretty good mix of baby talk and full sentences with our toddler. A lot of things like "If you put on your jimjams then we can have a baba before nightnight. How does that sound?" I'll usually get a chipper "uh huh!" and she'll sit down on her changing mat for a clean diaper. I'm just continuously astonished at how much she understands even with a fairly limited set of words she can use.
posted by brilliantine at 11:29 AM on September 18, 2019 [3 favorites]


When my friend's son was maybe 3 or 4 his parents would often have to say to him, "(name), be-HAVE!" To which he once, while in my presence, responded indignantly "I am being have!" (rhymed with "brave") Kinda makes sense, really.
posted by Greg_Ace at 11:35 AM on September 18, 2019 [4 favorites]


Peanut Butter Baby and am always sad that mom doesn't respond properly to Ethan's query about putting it on his face :/

Actually, this is what I was referring to.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:52 AM on September 18, 2019 [7 favorites]


Apparently I've been doing this without realizing it. When my sixteen-month-old looks at the cat I start saying things like "do you want to pet the cat?" or the cat's name.

(I'm not sure it works. My partner says that she's calling cats "puppy" now. We don't have dogs but whenever we go for walks and she sees dogs she screams for joy.)
posted by madcaptenor at 12:14 PM on September 18, 2019


"I am being have!"

Steven Pinker (yeah, I know) has a list of these in The Language Instinct (that's a link to a scan of the relevant chapter; see page 271), including "I am heyv" and "I don't want to go to your ami."
posted by madcaptenor at 12:17 PM on September 18, 2019 [1 favorite]


It's a different kind of confusion, but we were once talking about potty training in front of our (then) two-year old and she got Very Excited. Suspiciously Excited. She suddenly interrupted to say "I WANT TO GO ON THE POTTY TRAIN!"

I'm assuming she pictured a train car packed with rows of little toddler potties and it was the most magical place she could imagine.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 12:42 PM on September 18, 2019 [18 favorites]


It's honestly the most magical place I can imagine.
posted by Quindar Beep at 12:46 PM on September 18, 2019 [9 favorites]


This reminds me of when my niece told my father about a classmate named John. He said, “Oh? My name is John!”

She thought this was hilarious, that her grandfather actually had a first name which was also the same as a classmate’s.
posted by SillyShepherd at 1:35 PM on September 18, 2019


My grandparents were against baby talk too but they were coming at it from the point of view that people were doing baby talk under the assumption that it didn't matter what you said to babies because babies couldn't actually understand what you were saying, and their observation was that their babies seemed to understand language long before they could speak, so the more real words you throw at them (simple, clear words aimed at them) the more they can understand. My grandma had this technique of getting babies to stop crying by reciting this little story about a squirrel in a quiet voice and the baby stops crying so they can hear you. I still remember her doing that when I was about 3. Anyway probably like most things, a little bit of both depending on the situation is fine.
posted by bleep at 1:49 PM on September 18, 2019 [2 favorites]


I always loved "conversing" with my daughter when she was a baby -- trying to respond to her noises with an inflection that would satisfy her or encourage her. A lot of our conversations were her squealing or making repetitive noises while I said things like, "Is that right?" and "Really?" and "And then what happened?" and "Oh, I don't think so."

We were also the dorks that signed to/with her, so as she rounded the corner on her first birthday and into her second year, we had a brief period where she preferred signing to babbling, because the communication behind signing was unambiguous -- I want to go swing, I want a strawberry, more milk please.

And what blew my MIND was an incident that happened when she was 18 months old: My mom was watching her and it was getting close to lunch, so Kiddo walked over to my mom and began signing, "Soup, please." My mom didn't know signs and she said, "I'm sorry, I don't know that one?" and Kiddo said, "Shoo, shoo," while signing. My mom said, "I'm sorry, sweetie, I still don't know what you want." Cue Kiddo walking over to the pantry, grabbing a can of soup, walking back to my mom, and dropping the can at her feet and saying, "Shoo" while signing for "soup." She then picked up the can, dropped it again and repeated the speaking/signing.

When my mom told me the story that night, I was all, "Holy cats, this kid understands that there's more than one way to communicate a specific item. Nobody told her that. She made the connection on her own and she's not even two. Language acquisition is amazing."
posted by sobell at 4:13 PM on September 18, 2019 [19 favorites]


" including "I am heyv" and "I don't want to go to your ami.""

When we took 2-year-old Nano McGee, who is named Anna, to the Indiana Dunes, she was absolutely convinced we were saying "In the Anna Dunes" and she kept shouting "MINE! MINE DUNES!" and "CALLED ANNA DUNES!" (there was, unfortunately, a sobbing meltdown when we left because I guess she thought that since they were her Dunes, she could live there forever?)

My middle child thought the singular of "clothes" was "clo" well into kindergarten and I forbade anyone from telling him differently because it was SO CUTE. "Go throw your dirty clothes down the laundry chute." "I only have one clo, mommy!"
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:19 PM on September 18, 2019 [5 favorites]


We were also the dorks that signed to/with her, so as she rounded the corner on her first birthday and into her second year, we had a brief period where she preferred signing to babbling, because the communication behind signing was unambiguous -- I want to go swing, I want a strawberry, more milk please.

My brother and sister in law taught my niece the sign for "all done" so she could let them know when she was done eating and was full, and she adopted "all done" to use as general "please stop" language; apparently the first time she got vaccine shots after learning that sign, she started signing it to the doctor midway through the round of shots. And then when she first started speaking, she would say "all done" when she wanted my brother to stop tickling her or something.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:52 AM on September 19, 2019 [2 favorites]


My middle child thought the singular of "clothes" was "clo"

The "clo" is actually the name for the unit of thermal insulation. 1 clo is how much clothing you need at room temperature.
posted by madcaptenor at 6:39 AM on September 19, 2019 [2 favorites]


grumpybear69: I just asked my mom if she used baby talk with me, to which she replied "NEVER!" I've been attempting to apply the same principle when interacting with my nephew. Following his line of sight often aids in comprehending what his babble means.

bleep: My grandparents were against baby talk too but they were coming at it from the point of view that people were doing baby talk under the assumption that it didn't matter what you said to babies because babies couldn't actually understand what you were saying

I think these type of comments come from the lack of clarity on what "baby talk" means. In the context of this research, "parents simplify the structure of their speech in response to babbling," not that they say "who's a cute widdle baby?" and other nonsense words. I think most people modify how they talk to kids in general, and usually go further when talking with babies who babble.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:25 AM on September 19, 2019


Fascinating reading. My work brings me families with babies for bureaucratic purposes, which means I have to get little kids AND their parents on board with doing important paperwork. It doesn't always work, all families are different, but usually if I can get the applicant on board with my routine the parents will follow suit. So when they come in and sit down and for eg. leave the stroller facing the door with the kid in it, I ask to turn it around. I introduce myself to the child, then the adults, and usually from there on I'll have a family focused on ticking little boxes and signing in the right spot.

It also generally makes taking the picture easier.
posted by carsonb at 11:01 AM on September 19, 2019


I remember that my daughter's first word was very precise. And also that as soon as I figured out that she was signing to me, I realized that she had been trying to sign "milk" to me for at least a week and I hadn't figured it out until she stared right at me while doing a slow and careful hand movement. A lot of her later signs were super sloppy, because they could be sloppy and I'd still understand them.

And I do totally see myself doing the responsive baby talk, right now with my niece. If she babbles nanananana, I'll ask if she wants banana and then often just shorten it to an agreement, "banana". Not at all sure she means anything with most of her babble yet.
posted by Margalo Epps at 9:37 AM on September 20, 2019 [1 favorite]


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