Monday, 3 February 2020

The Power of Babble

"Ma-ma, ba-ba, da-da" - you probably associate sounds such as these with babies, in particular the babbling that babies make when they're first acquiring language. But what do these sounds do? And why do babies babble? This is a question that some recent research has addressed.


In their recent research report, Elminger, Schwade and Goldstein examined the function of babbling in infants’ language development.  They explored the idea that a caregiver’s response to their child’s vocalizations is key to the beginnings of communication and found that infants themselves may actually be in charge of this process.  By 5 months old, babies will babble and expect their adult caregiver to reply and by 9 months, they will begin to produce more speech-like noise once the adult responds to them.  Previous research has suggested that parents’ speech will match the child’s current age, changing as the child grows.  A baby’s most varied ‘pre-speech’ repertoire of sounds is between 9-10 months and this is when a parent’s speech is most sensitive to their child’s vocalizations.

The researchers focused on this age group and were interested in further investigating the relationship between the adults’ and infants’ vocalizations by closely examining adult speech in response to infant babble. They used three measures to assess the type of speech parents used to respond to babbling:  Firstly, they counted the number of different types of words that were used; secondly, they counted the average number of words in the responses and thirdly, they calculated how many of these responses were just a single word.  There were thirty mother-infant pairs who participated in the study and they were recorded in a naturalistic environment, as the child played, over two thirty minute sessions.  The researchers split the adult responses into two different categories: ‘contingent’ which were immediate, direct responses to the child’s babble and ‘non-contingent’ which did not occur within two seconds of the babbling.

Overall, the investigation showed that the mothers produced less contingent than non-contingent speech and that the contingent speech consisted of significantly shorter utterances with simpler words.  They also found that there were more single-word contingent utterances than non-contingent. So, in general, it seems that parents may simplify the whole structure of their speech in response to their child’s babble, suggesting that infant babbling really does influence the adult response. It may be that this immature, pre-speech babble is actually engineered by the child to create language learning opportunities through eliciting simplified, easy-to-learn responses from their caregiver.  In fact, it seems that infant babbling in general is indicative that learning is happening:  It has previously been found that infants more accurately remember the features of objects at which they have babbled than those that have been looked at and handled but not babbled at.  So, when an adult responds vocally to babbling, the already alert child will quickly learn the patterns of their speech. 

Overall, these results show that children learn to recognise language much more quickly when the information they need to do so is presented immediately on babbling.  During the first year of their life, infants associate their babbling with a response from their caregiver which will guide their learning and speech development.  So, unlike the Tower of Babel,  fabled to have been built to divide people linguistically, in this study the power of babble is shown to rely on infant and caregiver closely working together.


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Elmlinger S.L.; J.A. Schwade & M.H. Goldstein. 2019. The Ecology of prelinguistic vocal learning: parents simplify the structure of their speech in response to babbling. Journal of Child Language. 16:1-14.

This summary was written by Gemma Stoyle

doi: 10.1017/S0305000919000291



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