Baby Talk is Universal

A major function of speech is the communication of intentions. In everyday conversation between adults, intentions are conveyed through multiple channels, including the syntax and semantics of the language, but also through nonverbal vocal cues such as pitch, loudness, and rate of speech.

The same thing occurs when we talk to infants. Regardless of the language we speak, most adults, for example, raise their voices to elicit the infant’s attention and talk at a much slower rate to communicate effectively. In the scientific community, this baby talk is termed “infant-directed speech.”

There are direct relationships between the way we speak and what we wish to convey. For example, when we see a child reaching for the electrical socket, we do not call out their name as we would during a game of hide-and-go-seek.

Researchers Greg Bryant and Clark Barrett, at the University of California, Los Angeles, propose that the relationships between sounds and intentions are universal, and thus, should be understood by anyone regardless of the language they speak.

To test their hypothesis, Bryant and Barrett recorded native English-speaking mothers as if they were talking to their own child and then as if they were speaking to an adult. The speech varied across four categories: prohibitive, approval, comfort, and attention. Then, they played the recordings to habitants of a Shuar (South American hunter-horticulturalists) village in Ecuador to see if the participants could discriminate between infant-directed (ID) and adult-directed (AD) speech, and whether they could tell the difference between the categories in both types of speech.

The results, which appear in the August issue of Psychological Science, published by the Association for Psychological Science, showed that the Shuar participants were able to distinguish ID speech from AD speech with 73% accuracy. They were also able to tell which category (e.g. prohibitive, approval, etc.) the English-speaking mothers used, but they were better at this when the mothers used baby talk.

This is the first study to show that adult listeners in an indigenous, nonindustrialized, and nonliterate culture can easily tell the difference between baby talk and normal adult directed speech.

“These results also provide support for the notion that vocal emotional communication manifests itself in similar ways across disparate cultures,” writes Bryant. Future research might focus on how infants respond behaviorally when listening to infant-directed speech in a different language.


Sir, if parentese /motherese are powerful tool’s for the development of a language than what are the causes of huge veriations in languages on the Globe..? Thanks may oblige

The variations in languages come from the conventions of production. This may seem circular, but part of what defines a culture may be this characteristics that it’s people have in common. Points and manners of articulation, for whatever reason or purpose, may be underlying genetic feature that help create variations in language, and influence the development of language/and culture. This is only my opinion, but there is quite a bit of research leading to this conclusion.


Intonation (motherese) is the part of structuring of language through very basic biological processes that eventually lead to extra meaning in many languages. Language gets much more complex, than just intonation, but intonation is the start. I hope this helps.


APS regularly opens certain online articles for discussion on our website. Effective February 2021, you must be a logged-in APS member to post comments. By posting a comment, you agree to our Community Guidelines and the display of your profile information, including your name and affiliation. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations present in article comments are those of the writers and do not necessarily reflect the views of APS or the article’s author. For more information, please see our Community Guidelines.

Please login with your APS account to comment.