Public Release: 

The poetics of babytalk

University of Alberta

Some parents may think it is undignified or detrimental, but babytalk is essential to the full development of a baby's brain, says a researcher at the University of Alberta.

Babytalk, the universal cooing that mothers and fathers do to get their babies' attention, is more important than we may have ever realized, says Dr. David Miall, professor of English at the U of A.

Babytalk helps infants to develop an understanding and appreciation of temporal arts, such as literature, music, and dance, and depriving babies of the alliteration, assonance, and other poetic elements inherent in babytalk could hinder their ability to produce and appreciate these arts when they grow up, says Miall, whose research was published recently in the journal Human Nature--An Interdisciplinary Biosocial Perspective.

"There has been little research done in this area. Most evolutionary psychologists believe babytalk is simply related to a desire to develop a baby's sense of attachment and affiliation, but we think it is much more significant than that," Miall said.

Miall and his research colleague, Dr. Ellen Dissanayake, base their views according to studies they did with a software program that Miall had developed to recognize patterns in poetry. Miall found that babytalk follows the same patterns often found in poetry that adults read.

"Babytalk is full of poetic features, such as metrics and phonetics," Miall said. "I was surprised by how systematic it is, and how it works to shape and direct attention."

Miall noticed, for example, that the sounds a parent makes when the baby is focusing on the parent come from the high-front part of the mouth, which indicates intimacy. Conversely, the sounds come from the low-back part of the mouth when the parent is trying to win the baby's attention.

"There is a lot of evidence to show that an infant's mind is enormously flexible and adaptive, and we feel that if a parent does not engage their baby with babytalk it would be a loss, both cognitively and emotionally, for the baby," Miall said.

Further, Miall contends that babytalk is evidence that humans' ability to produce and appreciate art is not simply a means to help the artist find sexual partners, as some evolutionary psychologists believe. Humans have adapted the means to produce and appreciate art as a way to, among other things, elevate, enrich, and educate one another, and babytalk is an example of this, Miall says.

"Babytalk is an essential element of who and what we are," he adds. "And it shows that literary art is not simply an ornament created for sexual selection."


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