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Description: Have you heard a form of speech called “Motherese”? Well even if you do not know it by name it is the pattern or form of speech that mothers AND father and adults in general typically use when they are speaking to infants and it is basically universal. For years in developmental psychology and linguistics we have talked about how adults vary the prosodic information (the emphasis) in their speech when speaking to infants. Like, “ How are YOU today!” or “Isn’t THAT a BIIIIIGG Smile!” Motherese is that lilting, exaggerated pattern of speech the seems to capture and hold infant attention (and which made us feel uncomfortable when elderly relatives used it with us when we were “really old” (like 6 or 7 years of age). Now researchers at Princeton University have identified another possible universal feature of how we speak to infants.  Listen first to this clip of a parent speaking with one of the researchers (an adult, of course!) and now listen to this clip of the same parent talking to their infant: . One of the differences between the two clips, according to the researchers is the vocal timbre of the parental speech: can you hear the difference? Think a bit about what value, developmentally speaking, the variation of tone between Motherese and speech to adults might have for developing infants and then read the article linked below that describers the research.

Source: Uncovering the sound of ‘motherese,’ baby talk across languages, Liz Fuller-Wright, Princeton University.

Date: October 12, 2017

Photo Credit:  Elise Piazza

Links:  Article Link —

So, speech recognition software VERY quickly recognizes the change in timbe of speech directed towards infants and it seems clear that infants recognize it too. Now the important research question is “what is the developmental value of these timbre differences? And remember this is in speech directed towards infants so it is a few years ahead of that particular parental “VOICE” we sometimes remember that was telling us directly AND tonally to stop what we were doing immediately!  This is a line of research worth keeping an eye on.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. How does speech directed towards infants vary from speech directed towards older children and adults?
  2. What might the purpose or developmental value of those differences be for infants?
  3. Why might it be that Motherese is universal and how do we learn to use it?

References (Read Further):

Piazza, E. A., Iordan, M. C., & Lew-Williams, C. (2017). Mothers Consistently Alter Their Unique Vocal Fingerprints When Communicating with Infants. Current Biology.

Fernald, A., & Kuhl, P. (1987). Acoustic determinants of infant preference for motherese speech. Infant behavior and development, 10(3), 279-293.

Kuhl, P. K., Ramírez, R. R., Bosseler, A., Lin, J. F. L., & Imada, T. (2014). Infants’ brain responses to speech suggest analysis by synthesis. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(31), 11238-11245.

Tsang, C. D., Falk, S., & Hessel, A. (2017). Infants Prefer Infant‐Directed Song Over Speech. Child development, 88(4), 1207-1215.

Spinelli, M., Fasolo, M., & Mesman, J. (2017). Does prosody make the difference? A meta-analysis on relations between prosodic aspects of infant-directed speech and infant outcomes. Developmental Review, 44, 1-18.