Dads more likely to speak to babies like adults, study finds

Chuck Bednar for – @BednarChuck

Most people are familiar with “baby talk,” the use of higher-pitched voices and fluctuating frequencies that mark an adult’s elocution when speaking to a very young child, but is there a difference in how mothers and fathers address growing infants and toddlers?

That’s what Dr. Mark VanDam, professor in the Speech and Hearing Sciences department at Washington State University wanted to find out. In research scheduled to be presented Tuesday at the spring meeting of Acoustical Society of America, they studied 11 two-parent families with preschool-age children to see the tonal differences of moms and dads.

They found that when fathers interact with their kids, they were less likely than mothers to use raised fundamental frequencies, and demonstrated less of a tendency to alter the mean, range, and variability of their vocalizations. Dr. VanDam’s team noted that, to the best of their knowledge, this marks the first time this asymmetry between the parent sexes has been demonstrated.

Different approaches are complementary to learning

Each of the families involved in the study were traditional, two-parent families with a preschool-aged child (mean age: approximately 30 months), and each of them contributed whole-day audio recordings of a typical day in their lives. The recording device was placed in a chest pocket at a fixed distance of between seven and 10 centimeters from the child’s mouth.

About 150 hours worth of recordings were collected using the Language Environment Analysis (LENA) system. As they were processed using automatic speech recognition software, each segment was labeled with adult male, adult female, or child vocalization.

The research found that mothers frequently used higher pitch and varied their pitch more often when speaking with their children than they did when talking to adults. On the other hand, dads spoke to their kids using intonation patterns similar to those used when speaking to other adults.

Dr. VanDam explained that mothers use this altered language (referred to by the researchers as “motherese”) as a bonding tool, but added that it was not “a bad thing” for fathers to not use the same type of cadence when speaking to their young offspring. Instead, he said in a statement, the fathers may be “doing things that are conducive to their children’s learning but in a different way. The parents are complementary to their children’s language learning.”


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