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Baby talk may 'improve child's speech skills'

HealthBy Sunday World
Baby talk may 'improve child's speech skills'

Some experts suggest the best way to teach language to a baby is to speak as though the infant were another adult, since adult sounds, cadence, and tone of voice are what the child will eventually learn.

But researchers using a mathematical model have now discovered that it might actually be better to use "motherese," a sing-song voice that exaggerates the sounds the baby hears.

In a study conducted at Rutgers University-Newark, researchers deconstructed vowel sounds in adult speech. They then created a mathematical model that predicted understandable speech patterns from scratch, "to show what it might look like if speech were designed to actually teach children." Next they compared their invented teaching pattern with the differing speech methods that adults direct at each other and at infants, and found that infant-directed speech was the closer match.

"Our intuitions are surprisingly right," said Associate Professor Patrick Shafto in a statement. "Why do we speak funny to children? It’s actually to help them learn the relevant properties of language."

Such baby talk includes sounds which exaggerate the important properties that babies need to attend to and learn about, the researchers said. If you exaggerate in the correct way, what you get is a learner who learns more quickly from less data, and over time, Professor Shafto claims the baby’s brain is then able to process the "motherese" into regular language.

While the mathematical model is an interesting way to think about infants’ learning, the work is preliminary. For instance, proving that infant-directed speech is more educational is difficult by definition because babies not even a year old are too young to speak, so it is challenging to probe any language skills they have learned. But there may be a different group of learners who could demonstrate the value of the model. Professor Shafto says American adults not only speak in exaggerated ways to babies, but also distort their speech with pets and foreign language speakers - but differently for each. And because foreign language speakers' learning of English can be measured, Shafto says it might be possible to use mathematics to fine tune the speech patterns of instructors in ways that enhance the teaching of English as a second language.

"By manipulating only the things that are important and highlighting the meaningful distinctions in the language," he explained, "We might be able to make English more learnable for someone who speaks a different language natively."

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