News Release

Unlocking the secrets of adaptive parental speech

Peer-Reviewed Publication

The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

A new study reveals how parents naturally adjust their speech patterns to match their children's language proficiency. It shows that parents use less redundant language with older children, highlighting the impact of perceived language proficiency on communication. The findings offer valuable insights for our understanding of language development.

A new study by researchers at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the University of Edinburgh has revealed how parents naturally adapt their speech patterns to match the language proficiency of their children. This study, led by Dr. Shira Tal from the University of Edinburgh, alongside Prof. Eitan Grossman from the Department of Linguistics, and Prof. Inbal Arnon from the Department of Psychology at Hebrew University, provides new insights into the dynamics of infant-directed speech (IDS) and its role in language development.

The research investigates whether speakers use less redundant language with more proficient interlocutors, with a focus on infant-directed speech. Both the communicative efficiency framework and language development literature have suggested that speech directed towards younger infants should be more redundant compared to speech directed towards older infants. To test this, the researchers employed an innovative method by quantifying redundancy in infant-directed speech using entropy rate—an information-theoretic measure that reflects the average degree of repetitiveness in speech.

"Infant-directed speech is often described as repetitive, but existing research typically looked at different language “ingredients” separately. For example, we know that parents repeat words more often when talking to younger infants, and vary their lexicon more as children grow older. In our study we provide a novel and holistic measure of redundancy in speech directed to children, to explore how redundant it is overall," explained Dr. Shira Tal. “The idea was to see whether we use more redundant speech to younger infants, that are still in early stages of language learning, and allow ourselves to be less redundant the older, and hence, more proficient the children get”. The study used speech recordings of children at different ages to compare the entropy rates of speech directed to children across development. The results showed that parents indeed use less redundant speech when talking to older children, demonstrating that perceived interlocutor proficiency significantly affects redundancy.

Prof. Eitan Grossman highlighted the significance of the findings: "The developmental decrease in redundancy not only reflects a reduction in lexical repetition. We found that it is impacted also by a decrease in repetitions of multi-word sequences. This underscores the importance of larger sequences in early language learning."

The study's findings are particularly relevant for understanding how natural language input adjusts in response to a child's growing linguistic abilities. By using entropy rate as a measure, the researchers were able to capture the subtleties of how speech patterns evolve with a child's development, offering valuable insights for both theoretical and practical applications in language acquisition research.

Prof. Inbal Arnon emphasized the practical implications: "These findings demonstrate that babies are exposed to language that is adapted to the way we perceive them, much like the way we adapt our language to different people we talk to. It also adds a piece to the puzzle of unravelling the special characteristics of the input from which children learn their first language."

This study represents a significant advancement in the understanding of language acquisition and the adaptive nature of human communication.

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