Science / Medicine : 'Parentese': Universal Language

Times science writer Thomas H. Maugh II filed these reports from the meeting of the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science in Chicago

No matter what language mothers use to comfort, warn or praise their infants, the melodies, long pauses and word stretches are universal, according to psychologist Anne Fernald of Stanford University. This "parentese" appears to help get babies' attention, communicate and teach them language.

For 10 years, Fernald and her colleagues have traveled worldwide to record mothers interacting with their children, bringing the tapes to Stanford for detailed acoustic and linguistic analysis. She has found that mothers of all nations address their babies with universal melodies: short, sharp staccato for warning (" Nein! Nein! "); rising and then falling pitch for praise (" BRA-vo! "); a long, smooth, low frequency for comfort (" Oooh, pobrecito! "), and a high, rising melody for calling attention to objects ("Where's the buzz-a-BEE?").

In the laboratory, Fernald played the tapes for infants and measured their emotional response. She found that they responded more strongly, such as by increased heart rate or correct response, when the cues were in "parentese"--even in a foreign language-- than to grown-up talk.

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