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Baby talk study garners international attention

Using a computer program to evaluate the properties of speech patterns that parents use in talking to their children, researchers Gerald McRoberts, an assistant professor of psychology at Lehigh, and Malcolm Slaney of IBM’s Almaden Research Center in San Jose, Cal., conclude that infants find their mothers easier to understand than their fathers. The findings are published in the current issue of the journal New Scientist.

Since it was published, the study has received widespread international attention from a number of media outlets and publications including CNN Headline News, The BBC, The London Times, The Boston Globe, Times of India, Australian National Radio, and MSNBC.

McRoberts’ study even prompted a joke about baby talk from Jay Leno during his monologue on The Tonight Show, which referenced Lehigh’s role in the study.

Mom and dad talk differently to children

"We know that babies pick up on the ‘affect’ or emotional content of speech rather than the actual words," McRoberts says.

After developing the computer program, McRoberts and Slaney asked six sets of parents to play with their infants and make approving or disapproving comments designed to either encourage the child, or to warn the infant to stay away from a dangerous object.

The program analyzed the acoustic properties of nearly 700 excerpts of speech, correctly distinguishing between approving and disapproving comments nearly 80 percent of the time.

However, McRoberts says the researchers were surprised to learn that the program correctly identified 12 percent more of the comments made by the mothers.

"What that suggests to us," McRoberts says, "is that women use less ambiguous sounds than men to convey to babies what they mean."

Explanations for how and why this happened may vary, but McRoberts says that the experiment unequivocally shows that mothers and fathers talk to their children differently.

In other research conducted by McRoberts, a similar program identified emotional expressions by mothers from Italy, Germany, France and the U.S. nearly 70 percent of the time, suggesting that the emotional communication between parent and baby "is truly a universal one that cuts across all languages and cultures," he says.

--Elizabeth Shimer
elsc@lehigh.edu

Posted on Thursday, April 10, 2003

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