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Baby Talk: Decoding The Secret Language Of Babies

Bababababa, dadadadada, ahgagaga. Got that?

Babies are speaking to us all the time, but most of us have no clue what they're saying. To us non-babies, it all sounds like charming, mysterious, gobbleydegook. To researchers, though, babbling is knowable, predictable, and best of all, teachable. This week, we'll find out how to decipher the vocabulary, and the behavior, of the newest members of the human family.

First, we explore the wordless conversation of synchronous movement, and the bonding that happens when a parent and child sway in harmony. In her 2014 study on toddlers, Laura Cirelli discovered that 14-month-olds who felt they were bouncing in sync with a dance partner were more likely to help that partner pick up an object that was out of reach. Music and rhythm creates connection because, as Cirelli says, synchronous movement is its own kind of language—a language of affection. "When we are moving with other people [and] singing familiar songs, these are cueing us, babies and adults, to think about the relationships we have with these people."

"I find babies are so impressive," says researcher Laura Cirelli. "We can't ask them what they're thinking. We have to come up with clever ways of finding out what they're thinking."
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Getty Images/Westend61
"I find babies are so impressive," says researcher Laura Cirelli. "We can't ask them what they're thinking. We have to come up with clever ways of finding out what they're thinking."

Psychology professor Rachel Albert studies babbling, which until recently was considered to be mere motor practice, something babies did to exercise their mouths. Few people thought of it as a vocabulary all its own.

But parents, take note: All those repetitive syllables are an important signal. Albert says they tell us that babies are "putting themselves in this optimal state of being ready to learn." Babbles create an opportunity for a social feedback loop — also known as a conversation. And if you listen closely, you can even decipher a babble's four distinctive categories, from the whiny "nasal creaking" of newborns to the more mature bah-bahs and dah-dahs of older babies.

But Albert says if you can't tell your "quasi-resonant vocalizations" from your "canonical syllables," don't worry too much. All you really need to know is this: babbling equals learning.

Additional reading (and viewing)

There are a wealth of interesting videos on the language and behavior of babies and toddlers. We recommend:

  • This demonstration of Laura Cirelli's experiment with music and synchrony in babies.
  • This video of a little girl named Katrina during a dinnertime meltdown. In a 2011 study, Researchers Mike Potegal and James Green found that tantrums involve two predictable emotions: anger, followed by distress.
  • And check out this video of a baby demonstrating repeated syllables known as "canonical babbling."
  • This episode of Hidden Brain is part of an NPR-wide project called How To Raise A Human . It was produced by Parth Shah and edited by Tara Boyle. Our team includes Rhaina Cohen, Jenny Schmidt, Thomas Lu, and Laura Kwerel. Follow us on Twitter @hiddenbrain, and listen for our stories each week on your local public radio station.

    Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.
    Parth Shah is a producer and reporter in the Programming department at NPR. He came to NPR in 2016 as a Kroc Fellow.
    Tara Boyle is the supervising producer of NPR's Hidden Brain. In this role, Boyle oversees the production of both the Hidden Brain radio show and podcast, providing editorial guidance and support to host Shankar Vedantam and the shows' producers. Boyle also coordinates Shankar's Hidden Brain segments on Morning Edition and other NPR shows, and oversees collaborations with partners both internal and external to NPR. Previously, Boyle spent a decade at WAMU, the NPR station in Washington, D.C. She has reported for The Boston Globe, and began her career in public radio at WBUR in Boston.
    Laura Kwerel
    Kara Frame
    Kara Frame is a video producer for NPR and pursues personal projects in her free time. She most often produces for NPR's explainer series, "Let's Talk: Big Stories, Told Simply." She's crafted stories about housing segregation in Baltimore, MD; motherhood in a refugee camp in Lesbos, Greece; and food deserts in Washington, DC. Frame enjoys a break from the news when filming the Tiny Desk Concerts.
    Bronson Arcuri
    Bronson Arcuri is a video producer at NPR, where he directs the "Planet Money Shorts" video series and helps out with Tiny Desk Concerts from time to time. He also produced "Elise Tries" and "Ron's Office Hours" along with the "Junior Bugler" series, which he still insists was "pretty good for what it was."
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