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A New Study Finds that Parents around the World Communicate with Their Babies in Similar Ways

By: William Liao

A global study which was recently published in the journal “Nature Human Behavior” has revealed similarities in the ways parents all over the globe speak to their babies.

The study included 1,615 voice recordings from 410 parents on six continents speaking eighteen different languages, ranging from hunter-gatherers in Tanzania to city dwellers living in Beijing. A team of over forty scientists helped gather and analyze the recordings, eventually determining that this baby talk - technically known as ‘parentese’ – is nearly universal.

When one talks to a baby - even if baby is likely to be “utterly baffled by your unintelligible warble” – you tend to speak in a high-pitched voice. “Ooo, hellooooo baby!” writes journalist Oliver Whang in an attempt to imitate that sound, which he described as “lilting like a rapturously accommodating Walmart employee.”

“We tend to speak in this higher pitch, high variability, like, ‘Ohh, heeelloo, you’re a baaybee!’” said Courtney Hilton, who is a psychologist at Haskins Laboratories at Yale University and a principal author of the study, according to the The New York Times. Cody Moser, the other principal author, added: “When people tend to produce lullabies or tend to talk to their infants, they tend to do so in the same way.” According to The New York Times, Cody is a graduate student studying cognitive science at the University of California, Merced.

This high-pitched voice actually serves an important purpose, whether you know it or not. Noise is an important method of communication throughout the animal kingdom and can be used to convey anything from incoming danger to sexual attraction. Perhaps surprisingly, humans can determine whether a sound is happy or sad in animals ranging from chickadees and alligators to pigs and pandas.

So, it’s no surprise that ‘parentese’ aids babies with both survival and communication and language acquisition among other important skills, according to a long-standing claim of scientists. As Samuel Mehr, a “psychologist and director of The Music Lab at Haskins Laboratories who conceived the new study,” noted, solitary human babies are “really bad at their job of staying alive.”

For example, babies can piece together sounds with mouth shapes or be soothed using lullabies. After that, parents can use that high-pitched voice to grab the baby’s attention. “You can push air through your vocal tract, create these tones and rhythms, and it’s like giving the baby an analgesic,” Dr. Mehr said.

An important aspect of this study is the diversity of its subjects. A popular joke among academics is that “the study of psychology is actually the study of American college undergraduates.” These claims aren’t unfounded – a large portion of psychologists are urban-dwelling white researchers, which often influences their decisions over who to include in their studies.

“I’m probably the author with the most papers on this topic until now, and this is just blowing my stuff away,” said Greg Bryant, a “cognitive scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who was not associated with the new research.” “Everywhere you go in the world, where people are talking to babies, you hear these sounds.”

In a different study, Dr. Mehr led a group which looked at 315 different communities in a quest to find the universal characteristics of music. He discovered that music was present in every single one.

To find out whether people had an innate ability to determine whether a specific song or passage of speech was meant for a baby or an adult, his team created a game called ‘Who’s Listening?’ The game was played online by over 50,000 people from 187 countries speaking 199 languages, and the results indicated that players were able to guess correctly roughly 70% of the time, even when they had no idea of the language or culture the recording was from.

“The style of the music was different, but the vibe of it, for lack of a scientific term, felt the same,” said Caitlyn Placek, an anthropologist at Ball State University who helped to collect recordings from the Jenu Kuruba, a tribe in India. “The essence is there.”

The studies have the potential to jumpstart further research into babies and the way they interact with adults, as well as the ways from which they benefit from those interactions. And they also offer an important reminder: no matter how different we are on the surface, beneath that we are all human.

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