Baby talk in any lan­guage: Shift­ing the tim­bre of our voices

Iran Daily - - Health -

When talk­ing with their young in­fants, par­ents in­stinc­tively use ‘baby talk’, a unique form of speech in­clud­ing ex­ag­ger­ated pitch con­tours and short, repet­i­tive phrases.

Now, re­searchers re­port­ing in Cur­rent Bi­ol­ogy have found another unique fea­ture of the way moth­ers talk to their ba­bies: They shift the tim­bre of their voice in a rather spe­cific way, sci­ re­ported.

The find­ings hold true re­gard­less of a mother’s na­tive lan­guage.

Elise Pi­azza, from Prince­ton Uni­ver­sity, said, “We use tim­bre, the tone color or unique qual­ity of a sound, all the time to dis­tin­guish peo­ple, an­i­mals, and in­stru­ments.

“We found that moth­ers al­ter this ba­sic qual­ity of their voices when speak­ing to in­fants, and they do so in a highly con­sis­tent way across many di­verse lan­guages.

“Tim­bre is the rea­son it’s so easy to dis­cern idio­syn­cratic voices — the fa­mously vel­vety sound of Barry White, the nasal tone of Gil­bert Got­tfried, and the grav­elly sound of Tom Waits — even if they’re all singing the same note.”

Pi­azza and her col­leagues at the Prince­ton Baby Lab, in­clud­ing Mar­ius Catalin Ior­dan and Casey Lewwilliams, are gen­er­ally in­ter­ested in the way chil­dren learn to de­tect struc­ture in the voices around them dur­ing early lan­guage ac­qui­si­tion.

In the new study, they de­cided to fo­cus on the vo­cal cues that par­ents ad­just dur­ing baby talk with­out even re­al­iz­ing they’re do­ing it.

The re­searchers recorded 12 English-speak­ing moth­ers while they played with and read to their 7- to 12-month-old in­fants.

They also recorded those moth­ers while they spoke to another adult.

Af­ter quan­ti­fy­ing each mother’s unique vo­cal fin­ger­print us­ing a con­cise mea­sure of tim­bre, the re­searchers found that a com­puter could re­li­ably tell the dif­fer­ence be­tween in­fant- and adult-di­rected speech.

In fact, us­ing an ap­proach called ma­chine learn­ing, the re­searchers found that a com­puter could learn to dif­fer­en­ti­ate baby talk from nor­mal speech based on just one sec­ond of speech data.

The re­searchers ver­i­fied that those dif­fer­ences couldn’t be ex­plained by pitch or back­ground noise.

The next ques­tion was whether those dif­fer­ences would hold true in moth­ers speak­ing other lan­guages.

The re­searchers en­listed another group of 12 moth­ers who spoke nine dif­fer­ent lan­guages, in­clud­ing Span­ish, Rus­sian, Pol­ish, Hun­gar­ian, Ger­man, French, He­brew, Man­darin, and Can­tonese.

Re­mark­ably, they found that the tim­bre shift ob­served in English­s­peak­ing moth­ers was highly con­sis­tent across those lan­guages from around the world.

Pi­azza said, “The ma­chine learn­ing al­go­rithm, when trained on English data alone, could im­me­di­ately dis­tin­guish adult-di­rected from in­fant-di­rected speech in a test set of non-english record­ings and vice versa when trained on non-english data, show­ing strong gen­er­al­iz­abil­ity of this ef­fect across lan­guages.

“Thus, shifts in tim­bre be­tween adult-di­rected and in­fant-di­rected speech may rep­re­sent a univer­sal form of com­mu­ni­ca­tion that moth­ers im­plic­itly use to en­gage their ba­bies and sup­port their lan­guage learn­ing.”

The re­searchers said the next step is to ex­plore how the tim­bre shift helps in­fants in learn­ing.

They sus­pect that the unique tim­bre fin­ger­print could help ba­bies learn to dif­fer­en­ti­ate and di­rect their at­ten­tion to their mother’s voice from the time they are born.

And don’t worry, dads. While the study was done in moth­ers to keep the pitches more con­sis­tent across study par­tic­i­pants, the re­searchers said it’s likely the re­sults will ap­ply to fa­thers, too.

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