Baby talk: the universal language


The high-pitched coos and soothing tones that make up the language best known as baby talk aren’t just uttered by Westerners. Turns out that kind of speech is universal, understood among American moms and indigenous people thousands of miles away.

Researchers from UCLA recorded eight American, native English-speaking mothers speaking in various intonations to both adults and children, then played the recordings to 26 male and female members of a nonindustrialized culture in South America called the Shuar. The mothers were asked to react verbally to photographs of babies and adults engaged in various activities comprising four categories: prohibitive, approval, comfort and attention.

The Shuar were able to tell, with 73% accuracy, whether the women were speaking to adults or to babies, simply by understanding a range of nonverbal cues such as pitch, loudness and rate of speech.


“The Shuar are quite distant from European languages such as English, and because they’re culturally isolated it provides a good test,” says Greg Bryant, assistant professor in the communication studies department at UCLA and lead author of the study. (It appears in this month’s issue of the journal Psychological Science.) The Shuar live in small hunting-gardening communities in Ecuador.

One reason those higher tones are preserved for the crawling set: “Babies have immature perceptual systems, and they need extra enhanced input. So you’re spoon feeding them, essentially, which helps them understand,” Bryant says.

With exaggerated sound effects, he adds, “you get enhanced perception. When people talk to adults, they rely more on words.”

-- Jeannine Stein