Date Published: 2 November 2005

Baby-talk in Cantonese - research project

Health News from Australia.

'Baby talk', the high pitched and sing-song style of speech we use when talking to infants, is being researched Cantonese style at a laboratory at the University of Western Sydney. Baby talk is sometimes called infant-directed speech, parentese or even motherese, and is used by caregivers all over the world.

MARCS Auditory Laboratories at the UWS Bankstown Campus is conducting research to help dispel misconceptions that baby talk stifles language development. Despite 70% of the world's population speaking tonal languages, there's been little research into Cantonese.

MARCS Director, Professor Burnham, says much language research is Anglo or Euro-centric, and very little involves tonal languages.

Professor Burnham is supervising PhD student Ms Nan Xu, who has taken up the project after tackling an honours' project on how we speak to dogs (who can't talk) and parrots (who can), as well as babies (who are learning to speak).

"My honours thesis studies showed that when we talk to an infant, we pronounce vowels very clearly," says Ms Xu.

Now in her PhD work Ms Xu will investigate whether Chinese mothers accentuate important linguistic characteristics of Cantonese.

"In Chinese, voice pitch or tone determines meaning as well as consonants and vowels that are used in English."

Ms Xu is recording Cantonese-speaking mothers interacting with their infants, and will look at how vowels and tones are accentuated when the infants are three, six and nine months old - this will also give a good insight into the child's language development.

"This study is important because there's been little research with infants under six months - it's harder to do. We now know that babies' language development starts well before they start to talk," she said.

Professor Burnham says it's not just parents who change the way they talk - even four-year-olds do it when speaking to their younger siblings.

"What tends to happen is that it is spoken with much higher pitch than usual, the vowel sounds are over-articulated and new words tend to have extra emphasis on them."

MARCS Research Fellow, Dr Christine Kitamura, says the research has shown that infant-directed speech is "highly attractive to babies and plays a beneficial role in their emotional, social and linguistic development".

"Baby talk has many special characteristics. The first thing you notice is the exaggeration of intonation, or up-and-down of the speech, and its 'coochie-coo', or intensely emotional nature."

MARCS has conducted research in speech and language, music and movement, communication and auditory processing as well as hearing and hearing impairment since 1999. More than 70 academics are involved in cross-disciplinary research at MARCS.

Source: University of Western Sydney (Australia)

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