All posts in Children

The Universal Melodies of Baby Talk and the Power of Sound

baby talk 2

Solving the enigma of baby talk, or why we speak to wee ones in a language quite different from the one we exchange with grown-ups, defies logic. Despite what may seem as a humiliating assault on the English language, people all over the world do it—that is, communicate to newborns in high-pitched squeals, oohs and ahhs.

Recently, a fascinating piece aired on Radio Lab explored this topic, as a prelude to a larger theme of the power of sound.

Hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich interviewed Anne Fernal, director of the Center for Infant Studies at Stanford University. Years ago, Dr. Fernal observed mothers at a hospital in Germany speaking different languages (Turkish, Greek, Sicilian, etc.) to babies, which collectively created what she describes as a “deep universal music.” Despite the language differences, the women expressed the same intonations in sound when speaking to the children. She traveled all over the world, and corroborated her findings that there are universal melodies of baby talk:

“I found four universal melodies (expressed to convey the commands or actions) to praise, to stop, to call attention to and to comfort…”

“To praise” elicits a melody of a high, then low note, while “to stop” is abrupt, sharp and in musical terms, staccato.

Host Krulwich narrates:

“This is music that is understood by infants who are just new in the world—but we all know what it means…we all know these songs.”

Dr. Fernal continues:

“We often think of speech as being about something, but to me these songs aren’t about something, but feel more like touch, at a distance.”

The Radio Lab episode, titled “Sound as Touch” guides us through a scientific journey of what this all means—sound stimulates brain activity, which triggers emotions, which help us make sense of the initial sound, etc. Overall, it illuminates the power of sound in our lives—its ability to do more than just communicate, but to generate emotions, a sense of familiarity, or to alert us to threats, even danger.

Here’s the full audio:

Dr. Fernal, in her work, demonstrates four universal melodies we communicate to newborns, but teases our imaginations of what else. Are there others that we express to each other—a code of songs, or sounds— that are universal in nature, but not yet deciphered? Radio Lab‘s “Sound as Touch” doesn’t venture there, but instead considers sound’s psychological impact, and our amazing ability to process what we hear, internalize its message and react.

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The Virtues and Challenges of Raising Bilingual Children


In a global world defined by diversity, language is a form of expression that delineates one cultural group from another. And increasingly, in our multicultural communities, children are exposed to the brilliant palette of languages and dialects that comprise our modern-day experience. Recently a couple of articles addressed the issue of bilingualism, and its effects on children.

A well-written, albeit lengthy, piece titled “Why I Want My Children to be Bilingual” in Aeon Magazine, recounts an author’s experience as a parent, struggling to inculcate in his children the appreciation, and practice, of non-English languages. Ben Faccini is a native English and French speaker and has high hopes that his London-born children will adopt his other mother tongue of French:

“Introducing French into the family equation has undoubtedly been an additional complication. It skews mealtimes, often setting off lopsided conversations, pitting my French against everyone else’s English. It makes the children feel they are being judged and tested. And, despite their growing comprehension of French, they’ll find any excuse to walk a few steps behind me on the way to school in case I’m overheard. They stick their fingers in their ears when the Petit Nicolas CD is played in the car…”

Mr. Faccini’s frustration with his children’s apathy is palpable, and like any logical parent, cites hard facts of bilingualism’s benefits:

“Studies by the Department of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics at Cambridge University appear to show that bilingual children have a distinct advantage over their monolingual peers in their social interaction, cognitive flexibility and awareness of language construction. Research by the psychologists Ellen Bialystok and Michelle Martin-Rhee at York University, Toronto, also noted this boost to cognitive abilities. Their 2004 study of pre-schoolers showed bilinguals eclipsing monolinguals when given tasks with conflicting visual and verbal information.”

The evidence for grooming a polyglot may be there, but children certainly don’t see it that way. I speak Japanese, minimally, having lived in Japan for three years (and being quarter-Japanese) and have tried to slip in words, even questions and commands, to my two-year-old. He is quick to replicate the sounds (chisai, for small; kudasai for please, even itadakimasu for blessing the food), but mostly reacts as if I’ve just told a bad joke: “Mama, you are sooo silly,” he says.

He is smart enough to know that I am speaking a different language, and is very keen to “play along” at home for a few minutes when my phrases turn high-pitched and tonal, but shuns it in public, when I point out produce in Japanese.

He is, I fear, embarrassed, as Mr. Faccini noted. In fact, as it turns out, children who have taken the leap to acquire a second language, prefer not only to be around those that speak the same language, but also the same accent.

Researchers at Concordia University found that children prefer to “interact with people who are like them, and might perceive an accent as the mark of an outsider.” In a press release by Eureka Alert, Professor Krista Byers-Heinlein says:

“This…has implications for parents. Since children lack the self-awareness to remind themselves that accent is a superficial measure of character, parents should be more direct in teaching their kids about accents.

We show biases early on, so it might be necessary to educate all kids, regardless of their linguistic background, about what an accent is and how it doesn’t reflect anything about people other than the fact that they are not speaking their native language.”

Though languages, and accents, may be mere facades of one’s true, full character, they can also serve as a window into another world. Faccini says it best in his essay:

“A knowledge of languages can foster versatility, an attentiveness to the world and an understanding of cultural difference. It can make sense of the make-up and narrative of nations, cultivating deeper and joyous communion with others. Without languages, I feel as though my children are going to be missing some vital limb, hobbling through life, cut off from their heritage and the possibilities of the world.”

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Children Ponder Life’s Big Questions, Judge Scientists’ Responses

Children will judge scientists' explanations to the question "What is Color?" for The Flame Challenge.

One of the most fascinating displays of meaning-making is that of a child, contemplating the mysteries of the universe.  A young mind, wild with wonder and unbound by inhibition, often reveals truths about our world that as adults, we have a hard time accessing.

One contest, in the spirit of championing science, has the pleasure of gathering hundreds of questions from 11-year-olds around the world. The Flame Challenge, spearheaded by actor Alan Alda, reviews childrens’ deepest questions and chooses the most popular and prominent one. Scientists from all over then compete to answer the question, in a way that’s informative and enlightening to an 11-year-old. The best part: Winners are picked by the students and honored at the World Science Festival. This year’s question:

What is color?

According to the project’s website:

“It’s a fundamental question that spans the sciences. It can be answered from the perspective of physics, chemistry, psychology, even from a geological or oceanographic perspective…Many different questions were asked about color, including ‘Is my blue their blue?’ ‘Does everyone see color the same?’ and, even one of the most classic childhood questions, ‘Why is the sky blue?’”

One of my questions as a child was “When exactly do we grow?” Because I knew, that even if I didn’t understand the science behind the answer, I wanted to feel, to witness, my limbs elongating, my chest swelling (yes, it’s true), before my eyes.

This is the third time around for the contest. Previous questions included: What is a flame? and What is time?

For those scientists out there who hope to explain this year’s question, keep in mind a former judge’s sage advice: “Remember, we are 11, not seven.”

And with that, and an inquisitive two-and-a-half year old, I have a great deal to look forward to in the coming years.

Photo credit: ||-SAM Nasim-|| via photopin cc