Thursday, September 09, 2010

baby talk

I can't help it- I think this project sounds utterly fascinating. I often wish I'd made more detailed observations on my own boys' speech acquisition. Of course, full-time audio/video coverage for the first. three. YEARS. would've been hard to pull off in the mid-nineties. But still- imagine getting access to that much data, being able to have it evaluated independently by multiple observers- this fella has given us a whole database of information on language acquisition. I hope someone else tries this. Lots of someones, maybe.

I also like the idea that recordings allow both the child's output, and the parents' input, to be examined. It might shed light on how "impoverished" the stimulus really is. I know in our house, I talked to the boys an excessive amount. I had to; they were my only conversational partners for about five years! So I tended to provide running commentary on everything, all day long. I've known other mothers who are equally verbose with their infants; I suspect there's a lot more exchange going on than Chomsky thinks.

My grandmother used to do this thing with babies. I know everyone does their own kind of babytalk. We all pitch our voices up to some degree and talk expressively. But mamau had her own odd little babytalk thing going on. A baby would babble, and she'd look at it seriously, in dead earnest, and conversationally go, "You say your chicken died?" (No kidding- that was a regular knee slapper around here.) But the funny thing I recall is how babies less than a year old frequently responded as if she wasn't making any sense. They looked- confused. Sometimes they'd stop talking completely, other times they'd get sort of irate, and the jabbering would be louder and more insistent. They responded much better to her alternative? "Really? Well... You don't say!" But tinier babies would just gibber back enthusiastically to anything. It was as if they recognised they were being engaged in conversation, they just didn't have the code yet. Older babies recognized conversation, and seemed able to intuit that the speech itself wasn't "right."

(And yes, I have asked babies if their chicken died. I'm not sure where she got it, but it must have pinged itself into my babytalk repertoire in infancy.)

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