Parentheses are indeed the lingua franca, says global study

We’ve all seen it, we’ve all cringed at it, we’ve all done it ourselves: talking to the baby like it was, you know, a baby.

“Oooh, hi baby!” you say in a melodious voice, like an enthusiastically accommodating Walmart employee. Baby is completely baffled by your unintelligible trills and your shamelessly stupid smirk, but “baby, so cute!”

Whether or not it helps to know, researchers have recently determined that this humming baby talk – more commonly known as “parentheses” – seems almost universal to people all over the world. In the largest study of its kind, more than 40 scientists helped collect and analyze 1,615 voice recordings of 410 parents across six continents in 18 languages ​​from diverse communities: rural and urban, isolated and cosmopolitan, internet-savvy and offline, from hunter-gatherers in Tanzania to city ​​dwellers in Beijing.

The results, recently published in the journal Nature Human Behavior, showed that in each of these cultures, how parents spoke and sang to their babies differed from how they communicated with adults, and that these differences were very similar from group to group. .

“We tend to speak in a higher tone, with a lot of variability, like, ‘Oh heyellow, you’re a baby!’ says Courtney Hilton, a psychologist at Haskins Laboratories at Yale University and lead author of the study. Cody Moser, a graduate student in cognitive science at UC Merced and another lead author, added: “When people tend to play lullabies or talk to their babies, they tend to do it the same way. “

The findings suggest that baby talk and nursery rhymes perform a function independent of cultural and social forces. They provide a starting point for future research on infants and to some extent address the lack of diversity in psychology. Making cross-cultural claims about human behavior requires studies of many different societies. Now there is a big one.

“I’m probably the author of most of the papers on this topic so far, and it’s just blowing my mind,” said Greg Bryant, a cognitive scientist at UCLA who was not involved with the new research work. “Wherever you go in a world where people are talking to babies, you hear these sounds.”

Sound is used throughout the animal kingdom. convey emotions as well as signal informationincluding incoming danger and sexual attraction. Such sounds display similarities between species: A human listener can distinguish between joyful and sad sounds. made by animals, from tits and alligators to pigs and pandas. Therefore, it is not surprising that human noises also carry a well-known emotional coloring.

Scientists have long argued that the sounds people make with their babies serve a number of important developmental and developmental functions. evolutionary functions. As Samuel Mehr, the psychologist and director of the music lab at Haskins Laboratories, who conceived the new study, noted, lonely human babies are “really bad at their survival job.” The strange things we do with our voices while looking at a newborn not only help us survive, but also teach us language and communication.

For example, braces may help some babies remember words betterand it allows them to come together mouth shaped sounds, which gives meaning to the chaos around them. In addition, lullabies can soothe a crying baby, and a higher voice is better at holding his attention. “You can push air through your vocal tract, create these tones and rhythms, and it’s like giving a child painkillers,” says the doctor. Mehr said.

But in putting forward these arguments, scientists, mostly from Western, developed countries, basically proceeded from the fact that parents in different cultures change their voice to talk to babies. “It was a risky assumption,” said Casey Lew-Williams, a psychologist and director of the Princeton University Children’s Laboratory who was not involved in the new study. Dr. Lew-Williams noted that baby talk and songs “seem to be disastrous for language learning” but that “there are some cultures where adults don’t talk to children that much—and where they talk to them a lot.” The theoretical coherence, while good, runs the risk of “washing away the richness and texture of cultures,” he says.

An increasingly popular joke among academics is that the study of psychology is actually the study of American college students. Because white, urban researchers are highly represented in psychology, the questions they ask and the people they involve in their research are often shaped by their culture.

“I think people don’t realize how much this affects how we understand behavior,” said Dorsa Amir, an anthropologist at the University of California, Berkeley, who has been collecting records of the Shuar people in Ecuador for the new study. “But there are very different ways to be human.”

In with previous research, Dr. Mer led the search for universal characteristics of music. Of the 315 different societies he considered, music was present in every one. An acquittal and rich dataset, but one that raised more questions: how similar is music in each culture? Do people of different cultures perceive the same music differently?

In a new study, bracket sounds were found to differ in 11 ways from adult conversations and songs around the world. Some of these differences may seem obvious. For example, a baby’s babble sounds higher than an adult’s, and a children’s song is smoother than an adult’s. But to test whether people have an innate understanding of these differences, the researchers created a game. Who is listening? — which was played online by more than 50,000 people speaking 199 languages ​​from 187 countries. Participants were asked to determine whether a song or piece of speech was directed at a child or an adult.

The researchers found that listeners could tell with about 70 percent accuracy when the sounds were intended for babies, even if they were completely unfamiliar with the language and culture of the person making them. “The style of the music was different, but its vibe, for lack of a scientific term, felt the same,” said Caitlin Plasek, an anthropologist at Ball University who helped collect records from the Jenu Kuruba tribe in India. “The essence is.”

The acoustic analysis of the new study also listed these global characteristics of infant-adult communication in a way that prompted new questions and discoveries.

For example, people tend to try many different vowel sounds and combinations when talking to babies, “exploring the vowel space,” as Mr. Moser puts it. It’s very similar to how adults sing to each other all over the world. The baby talk is also very similar to the melody of the song — “speech songwriting, if you will,” the doctor says. Hilton said.

This could potentially point to a developmental source of music — perhaps “listening to music is one of those things that people are just adapted to,” says the doctor. Mehr said.

But no decision has yet been made on how these cross-cultural similarities fit into existing developmental theories. “In the future in this field, it will be necessary to find out which items on this list are important for language learning,” says the doctor. Lew Williams said. “And that’s why this kind of work is so cool – it can spread.”

Dr. More agreed. “Part of being a psychologist is to take a step back and see how weird and incredible we are,” he said.