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Mothers' melodies teach babies lyrics of language

STANFORD -- Bored with sucking his fingers, Ralph drags his diapered bottom to an electrical outlet, where he proceeds to tug on a lamp cord. "No-no-NO!" shouts his mother.

The words may be as unintelligible to Ralph as the voice of Charlie Brown's teacher on a Peanuts special, but her intent is clear. Ralph shies away from the lamp cord.

Long before they understand language, babies find out what's on their mothers' minds through emotional clues in the parent's exaggerated, musical speech, Stanford psychologist Anne Fernald told the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Chicago on Feb. 8.

"Parentese" - the melodies, long pauses and word stretches with which adults address their babies - appears to help get babies' attention, communicate, and teach them language, she said. And those functions seem to cross national boundaries.

For 10 years, Fernald and her colleagues and students have traveled worldwide to record mothers interacting with their babies, bringing the tapes back to Stanford for detailed acoustical 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?").

The song remains the same for mothers speaking in emotionally expressive cultures, such as Italian, and in cultures known for emotional reserve, such as Japanese, Fernald said. It applies as much to languages like English, which stresses words for emphasis, as it does to tonal languages like Mandarin, where rising vocal pitch may alter a word's meaning.

In the laboratory, Fernald set up controlled experiments, playing the same audiotapes to many infants to clarify some of the functions of "Parentese":

  • Getting the child's attention. Infants' heart rates showed a stronger response to the melodies of infant-directed speech - even in a foreign language - than to grown-up talk.
  • Conveying clear emotional signals. Again, even when hearing languages for the first time, 5-month-old babies responded with appropriate emotions - smiling more at approvals and looking worried during prohibitions.
  • Teaching language. In a new experiment, Fernald, Gerald McRoberts and Carla Herrera found that babies around 12 months of age looked at the correct picture more often when directed in Parentese ("Look at the BALL") than in normal intonation ("Look at the ball").

While some functions of parental speech are universal, Fernald said, there are important differences between cultures. In a recent field study of mother-infant interaction in Japanese and American families, Fernald and co-worker Hiromi Morikawa found that American mothers labeled objects for the infant over and over ("That's a BALL, Johnny. BALL."), Japanese mothers did less vocabulary work but used the object more to establish emotional communication, and to teach valued social behavior ("Can you give me the ball? Thank you very much.").



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