Dr. Gordon Ramsay joins us again to dive deeper into the concept of infant-directed speech, commonly known as baby talk. Together we discuss the differences that may affect a baby’s exposure to infant-directed speech, whether that be differences between cultures & languages, or differences in circumstances at birth.
Dr. Gordon Ramsay is the director of the Spoken Communication Laboratory at Marcus Autism Center within Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, and he is also the assistant professor in Pediatrics at the Emory University School of Medicine. Gordon completed his doctorate in electronics and electrical engineering at the University of Southampton in England, and received a master’s in speech and language processing from Cambridge University after undergraduate studies in engineering. As part of the research team, he is a principal investigator and director of data analysis and management for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Autism Center of Excellence grant, exploring the development of new vocal biomarkers for autism in the first year of life, as well as new mathematical techniques and technologies for measuring infant development. His research helps show how early emerging mechanisms of social engagement are potentially derailed in autism in the first year of life and explains how this impacts the development of speech and language. This will eventually lead to evidence-based technologies for early detection and intervention to address the social communication deficit in autism.
Transcription for Episode 8:
Welcome to Growing Up Brainy, your portal into what’s happening inside your baby’s brain. We interview the experts, demystify the science, and help you nurture your child towards a bright, open future.
Hi there. I’m your host, Amy Husted, startup addict, boy mom of two, and chief commercial officer here at smallTalk. So in today’s episode, we have the pleasure of having a repeat guest, two times in a row, Dr Gordon Ramsay. Gordon is the director of the Spoken Communication Laboratory at Marcus Autism Center within Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, and he is also the assistant professor in Pediatrics at the Emory University School of Medicine. So, Gordon, before we get started, for those who may not have heard the last episode where we spoke with you, I would love if you shared a little bit about your background and your focus of study.
Sure. So I’m a speech scientist and electronic engineer originally, and in my lab and research program, we’re interested in measuring everything about early vocal development in newborn babies from birth to three years of age. And also we’re interested in looking at how early trajectories of development really create speech and language differences later in adulthood. And my focus is really on autism and the early risk for autism. But we’re also interested in learning messages about how we can create better methods for early detection and intervention in all kids with developmental disorders.
In our last conversation, we define infant-directed speech. So why it matters for our baby’s development, what it is, and why we talk in baby talk patterns with our little ones and how it’s actually quite important for their development. And we talked a bit about how parents can use that in their everyday lives and how it’s just something that comes naturally. But sometimes even with things that come naturally, we know that not every family is the same. Not every baby is the same, not every mother, not every father, not every home, not every country, not every wherever. Fill in the blank. So today what we want to do is take some ideas that were presented in the last episode and dig into them a little more to see about how we see differences and similarities across different scenarios when it comes to infant-directed speech. So for today, I want to start with a high-level, broad view. So thinking on more of a global level, culture to culture. How do we see that infant-directed speech varies or doesn’t vary in those situations? So, Gordon, if you could speak a little bit, do you think that infant-directed speech is a worldwide commonality?
It’s both a worldwide commonality, but there are also differences from culture to culture which are very interesting. So last time we talked about the fact that infant-directed speech really is a combination of intonational modulation where you change the pitch of your voice to make it more attractive and emotionally engaging to babies, and also the fact that towards the end of the first year of life, you start to tend to exaggerate properties of your speech that really are relevant to learning about differences in your native language. So if we look across the languages of the world and the cultures of the world, it does seem to be the case that in most cultures, caregivers use higher pitch and exaggerated pitch range. So those intonational differences do seem to be a common feature. But that’s not universal because increased pitch modulation isn’t seen, for example, in Japanese, Japanese moms don’t use the same excessive modulation of intonation that we see, for example, in American English moms and American English moms modulate their pitch much more than British English moms, for example. Even within the same language between cultures, there are differences in terms of those individual language specific properties. We mentioned last time that in Japanese, for example, the vocabulary the words you use when speaking to babies are completely different from the vocabulary used when talking to adults. You have completely different words that you use for Japanese babies for the same thing that you would use a different word for in adulthood. And so in terms of language specific properties, all languages tend to exaggerate the properties of speech sounds, in instant-directed speech that are important in those languages. And one of the fascinating things is that sometimes those things that we think of as being specifically infant-directed speech, the variation and intonation, for example, sometimes those might clash with special language properties. So in tone languages like Mandarin, for example, pitch is used to distinguish the meaning of individual speech sounds. And yet an infant-directed speech, we mess with that by modulating the intonation. And so there’s a kind of a conflict there between what’s important for adult directed speech and linguistic meaning and what’s important for infant-directed speech and what we know is attractive for babies.
And the interesting thing is in languages where you do have that kind of that overlap between those properties. Usually it’s the information that’s important in adult-directed speech that seems to win out over the special infant-directed properties. But having said that across most of the languages of the world and most of the cultures of the world, we do see a different infant-directed local register the parents especially use for the babies and infants. And we do tend to see the function and the structure of the infant-directed speech being shared in many respects of cross languages and cultures.
It’s also important that in terms of culture, this is not just about infant-directed speech but infant-directed behavior more generally. So last time we mentioned, for example, in deaf culture, deaf moms teaching sign to deaf babies or sign language to deaf babies tend to exaggerate their manual gestures or the things they’re doing when they are signing to babies rather than adults in ways that resemble the kind of things qualitatively that they’re trying to do with our voices. And so across language, speech and communication, there are infant-directed strategies versus adult-directive strategies. And what’s really fascinating is that many of those strategies and properties do seem to be shared across the languages and cultures, even though there are differences that are actually quite fascinating between languages and cultures.
And a broad theme of research in general nowadays is the fact that, unfortunately, a lot of research, for historical reasons and because of funding has focused really on White English speakers. And we know that the messages we might get from the infant-directed speech in White English speakers or White wealthy English speakers really might not be giving us the full picture on what we see across different cultures and different languages, which is why it’s important so important that we appreciate not only the diversity of infant-directed speech across languages and cultures, but also the individual variability we see within languages and cultures, which we kind of touched on last time when we talked about all different things parents can do with their voices and their behaviors to engage with their child.
So what about a baby who grows up in a multicultural home, whether that’s in their day-to- day home or whether because they have families from different cultures, how does that play in if they’re having this infant-directed speech experience with different cultures all at the same time?
We know a lot about that, actually. And so one of the fascinating things about speech perception, the way babies learn to listen to and understand different speech sounds is something called perceptual narrowing. And very early in life, close to birth, babies don’t really have individual experience of their native language yet, and they’re open to all languages of the world and they can hear a contrast in all different speech sounds that are used in all different languages of the world. Pretty much, I wouldn’t say equally, but they’re able to notice those differences and to discriminate between any speech sounds you throw at them from any languages. Now, towards the end of the first year of life, around about nine months, this thing called perceptual narrowing happens as babies gain experience of their native language from their parents and their ambient language environment. And actually, baby brains begin to stop being able to discriminate sounds from languages other than their own. They lose that ability. They literally become almost deaf or insensitive to discriminations between different sounds of different languages that they could discriminate between when they were earlier. Because babies tend to focus more and more and what’s important to them, they actively seek out information that lets them get meaning from the world. And part of that is really differences between speech sounds, So naturally, you begin to lose that ability to discriminate between sounds towards the end of the first year of life. And at the same time, parents in their infant-directed speech start to exaggerate properties that are specific to the baby’s native language. And that’s really what happens in a baby in a single culture environment or a single language environment. Now, when babies are exposed to multiple languages and multiple cultures, they actually remain open to all the sounds of all the languages they’re exposed to.
And so that window of perceptual narrowing that gradually closes in a single language actually remains open for longer because the babies are being forced to discriminate between more sounds and to really start to learn the differences between languages and cultures, as well as the difference between individual speech sounds. And so we actually think that this is potentially a useful mechanism, because keeping that window of adaptive learning open for longer may actually be a good thing in terms of opening the baby’s brain to experience and keeping that window of adaptive for learning open for longer than it would naturally be in a single language.
I should say we don’t know right now whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing. We simply know that it happens. And so we know that bilingualism is not a problem for babies. We used to think it was a bad thing to expose babies to multiple language, as we now know that’s not true. And there are differences that happen in babies’ brains and baby’s behavior in the context of speech and language in different cultures when they’re exposed to multiple cultures. And that’s something that we can perhaps think about exploiting, or at least being aware of when we think about keeping babies’ brains open for longer for a broader window of experience to more languages and speech in different cultures.
So obviously, babies are born in every culture around the world. Are there any cultures that you would say have any limitations or, on the flip side, advantages, how do cultures compare?
So I don’t think we have enough research on that question right now to be able to give definitive answers about whether particular practices in particular cultures promote or attenuate speech and language experience or learning. And I think in most cultures, the message really is, that over time, parents do what’s best for their kids, and they know how to do that intuitively. And even though there may be differences, I don’t think there’s any reason for us to suspect that any culture or language is better or worse for early speech and language experience in babies.
And there is a lot of research on that. But like I said, it’s been biased historically towards White, wealthy, educated Western societies and languages. And so we need to do a lot more. One example that’s been of great interest is the fact that in some cultures, babies quite often carried on their mom’s back for long periods of time. In West African societies, quite often babies are carried on the back while mom’s walking. They’re present with their babies the same amount, but there perhaps isn’t the same exposure to talking faces that you might get if you’re constantly holding your baby rather than carrying them.
We have no idea right now what that actually means in terms of speech and language development, but there are no reason to suspect that there’s anything negative about practices in different cultures in terms of what everybody really learns to do and knows how to do intuitively with babies. And we all teach our babies how to speak. Most babies do learn to talk, and if that weren’t the case, then presumably we would have done something differently.
Well, we are going to take a quick minute and we will be right back.
The Growing Up Brainy podcast is brought to you by SmallTalk. SmallTalk allows your baby to engage with foreign language through play. This interactive language exposure during infancy results in what we like to call brain magic, wiring your little one’s brain with the building blocks of a new language and getting them a different and better brain for a lifetime.
Let’s pull it back a little bit. We’ve been talking about this broad worldview, but let’s bring it back into the home, into the home of the people listening, and think about the different scenarios that could play into this bonding experience of infant-directed speech and starting particularly with the mother. You mentioned in our last conversation in the last episode that sometimes depression, postpartum depression can be a factor in this experience. And that’s something personally, that I struggled with when my babies were little, and there’s a lot of doubt that parents face when they’re in that situation. So tell me a bit about how does that affect a baby’s experience and bonding experience with language? When a mom isn’t necessarily in the right mental health space or in physical, there could be some physical limitation to where mom can’t be present in those early months.
Yes, we know of many situations that will change infant-directed speech or infant-directed behavior in parents, and also that will change a response to infant-directed speech in children. And those two quite often are not Disociable because they go together through a natural process of interactions. So the most important thing is that there’s no blame attached to moms who change their behavior for whatever reason. That quite often comes from medical conditions or other situations or experiences that are beyond the parents control. For depression, for example, we know that maternal depression definitely impacts infant-directed speech and response to infants in general.
And so moms who suffer from maternal depression or anxiety, they tend not to increase their pitch when they’re talking to babies. They tend to have a reduced pitch range. They’re not modulating the intonation of their voices quite as much. And then, because those are key components of infant-directed speech that are attractive to babies, you find that infants who are presented with infant-directed speech from depressed moms tend not to respond to it as well or as rapidly as they would to infant-directed speech that preserves all of those key properties.
So depression in moms is not good for infant-directed speech, and it’s not good either for the baby or the mom in general. And we can actually measure those differences and show that they are important in changing the way that babies respond. And that’s partly why it’s very important for moms to always be aware of how they’re interacting with their babies and also aware of how they’re feeling about that interaction and feeling themselves. And so if moms are feeling anxious or depressed, it’s very important that they seek help for that, and that they realize that. Simply because it does have an impact not only on their own health but on the health of their baby.
And we know that anything that is bad for mom is bad for baby and anything that is bad for baby is probably also bad for mom. So it’s really important to take care of her interaction and make sure that it’s promoted and safeguarded in every possible way.
Yeah. And how might they bridge the gap? So while mom is taking the steps that she needs to take in order to get to a healthy place, are there opportunities like, what can other caregivers offer to baby in place of mom? And, you know, as much as best as possible?
And that touches on a very interesting question that we don’t know how important it is for babies to be exposed to an ambient language environment in general, with lots and lots of different people surrounding them and taking care of them, or how important it is that it’s specifically the mom or the dad who provide that environment. And in many families, babies will have multiple caregivers. And so I think as long as babies are getting enough speech and language input, enough care from people around them, and most importantly, enough social interaction, which is the whole purpose of speech and language and the whole driving force behind infant-directed speech, the engagement with kids that offers as long as they’re having enough of that. But you would hope that that would provide a buffer against any things like that. The other thing is we don’t know how much is necessary. So it’s not necessarily the fact that if you produce five times the infant-directed speech to your baby, that you’re going to have five times more rapid language acquisition or five times greater vocabulary by two years of age, it really doesn’t work like that. And so if you were to bombard your baby with infant-directed speech every waking moment of the day, and probably they would tune out to it, and it simply would be less effective than just producing a normal amount of infant-directed speech.
And that’s a hypothetical example, of course. But many of these questions we just don’t realize. And I think the most important thing is awareness about the nature of the connection between mom and baby or dad and baby and making sure that all of those key elements, those active ingredients for social engagement and early speech and language development are present in a sufficient in quality and quantity that everybody gets to talk in the end.
I like that. And I like what you said there that we don’t necessarily know how much they need. So as mom’s day ebbs and flows or her week ebbs and flows, for those times that she does have the capacity to engage deeply. That’s important, too. And just to appreciate and lean into those moments.
So we spent a little bit of time talking about mom and different influencing factors that might keep a little bit of a barrier between mom and baby. But what about baby? So if we consider that not every baby’s early days are the same. Some are born early, some are born with disabilities and out of normal circumstances. And so, how do we handle that? When baby can’t necessarily respond the same way the typical babies do?
That’s a great question. I think, again, the important thing to focus on is how to scaffold social interaction in a way that works regardless of the sensory social or neurological impairment that babies might be suffering from early in life. And so we know, for example, if we think about deaf babies who can’t hear sometimes that isn’t picked up for a long time. Deaf babies can’t hear all of those aspects of infant-directed speech that are naturally engaging, and they perhaps will require different strategies for orienting towards their name or learning to learn about language, whether it’s spoken or signed language from their parents.
And so, again, the question really is, what do babies have available to them for being exposed to and absorbing information about speech and language? How are parents able to realize that and to exploit it? And I think the difficult thing there is that we talked about infant-directed speech earlier, being a developmental process that changes not only the way the baby responds to speech, but also the things that parents do to create infant-directed speech, both early for babies and later for children who begin to talk. And really, the thing to think about is, what are the active ingredients that parents are using, really, to engage their kids? And are they aware of what their babies are really capable of doing or capable of perceiving and producing that really drives them to modify their behavior accordingly? And so I think there’s a lot of value, really, in parents just being aware constantly of what works in engaging their babies and making their babies feel better in making their babies respond to speech and language, and then really using that as the tool for watching language and speech blossom in the brain of their child.
So you mentioned deaf babies and how parents might adapt there but you’ve also talked a lot about the social and emotional experience that comes from a mom and baby seeing each other and reacting. So what about babies who are born blind and can’t see their mom’s facial expressions? How does that play into this?
Yeah, that’s a really interesting example. So blind babies, they can’t see talking faces, but they can hear. Many of them can hear perfectly well. So they still have the auditory exposure to language. And in blind babies, it seems to be the case that there’s often the delay in speech and language acquisition because they’re not exposed to the full multimodal experience of the visual experience of a face talking. And that going with the auditory experience of a voice, both of which provide important information about speech and language. But blind babies, who may be delayed, they don’t really seem to suffer from long-term language differences. And so even though you don’t have the visual experience of a talking face, even though that does cause a disruption or a delay in speech and language acquisition, it does seem to be the case that in blind babies, it doesn’t really lead to long-term differences in speech and language. On the other hand, in deaf babies, we can see very long-term effects, not only in deaf baby’s ability to hear a speech auditorily, obviously, which is part of the nature of the difference.
But also, they will have what’s called a deaf accent later on because their speech production isn’t being shaped by the same experience that the fully hearing babies are having. And another case, for example, is babies at risk of autism. So babies who go on to be diagnosed with autism quite often they don’t respond to vocal signals or social signals or interactions with the mom in the same way that other babies do. And that’s really important because, like I mentioned, the things that adults do with their voices to engage babies through infant-directed speech really depend on the feedback they’re getting from the baby.
And if that feedback is disrupted in some way or it’s not what they have been driven to expect intuitively from the way babies will respond to these exaggerated intonation properties or the articulations that they’re making with their mouth. If that feedback is disrupted, then it tends to might discourage parents from interacting more. Or it might change the way they’re shaping their voice to engage babies. And we quite often see that in babies where they’re early deficits in social interaction, parents of those babies quite often will switch into adult-directed register much sooner than mothers of typically developing babies. Not because there’s anything wrong with the parents or they’re doing anything wrong. It’s that they’ve realized that isn’t effective, it’s not working. And therefore, they don’t persist in that Bay, because it’s simply not something a lot of strategies that they are getting feedback from their babies in. And so the important thing to think about always is the fact for infant-directed, speech isn’t something that is only created in the brain and the mouth of the adult caregiver, it’s a process of social interaction. It emerges from a process of social interaction that creates those vocal signals that scaffold and stimulate interaction with the baby.
And there’s massive variability across different people. Even though we have talked about the relative homogeneity of infant-directed speech across adults and cultures and languages, there’s still a lot of variability. And you can usually find many different pathways to interact socially with a young child or an infant who can’t talk yet in ways that will still stimulate speech and language acquisition and what those pathways are and what the active ingredients of vocal signaling, the currency of exchange that parents and infants agree to communicate with. That depends very much on the capacity of the individual child and also the capacity of the parents for understanding their child’s abilities at each stage of development.
So thinking about those stages of development actually makes me think. I know that parents can very easily stress themselves out about whether their baby is developing correctly or typically on all fronts. But if we’re looking at language specifically wanting to do best by them, and so we could decide to dive into WebMD and freak ourselves out. But thinking rather than doing something like that, how might parents know if their child is developing typically, or if there’s something that they should be doing differently? You mentioned that parents we’ll notice that things do or don’t work. Is there a process to that? Like, how do we keep our kids on the best track possible?
So those are really great questions. And this is something that comes up all the time if you work with families who have a risk for a developmental disability in their child. The main message, again, is that parents always do the best for their kids and they do their very best to interact. That’s a natural, intuitive process. And so most parents do the best for their kids intuitively in anyway, except if there’s something interfering with that, like a process of depression or some other problem. The main thing is to be aware of your own state as a parent and your child’s state and how you’re interacting with them and what is working and not working and looking at really just promoting things that are effective for you and your child. But you’ve already talked about that a little bit and just really always emphasizing things that are going to promote early social interaction in ways that are relevant to speech and language. The most important thing, though, is for parents not to worry or to be anxious or depressed about it, because we know that anxiety and depression in mothers and dads is not only bad for the parent, it’s bad for the child. And so becoming anxious about your child’s development or like you say, hunting on Web MD for signs of differences and things, it’s much better to seek advice from professionals. Who can provide an objective evaluation of your child’s development or your own health. And really, if you’re feeling worried about your child’s development or your own state of health, you should always seek help, either from a therapist or from a clinician, somebody who has the expert knowledge and objective ability to provide you with an opinion about whether or not there is something that actually needs to be addressed. And I think that’s the most important message because quite often parents suffer alone because they feel either that their child’s lack of responsiveness is their fault or they’re not doing something right.
And the main problem that we always have with children with developmental disabilities is the fact that the parents leave it too late to seek help, and early development is a very important process. The earlier you intervene or find signs of differences, the more likely you are still likely to have a window of opportunity to alter the brain and the behavior of a child through intervention simply because of neuroplasticity, the fact that the brain is still malleable early in infancy and that goes away over time, and it becomes more difficult to change things.
The main message is, the parents should never suffer in silence on their own or worry about things unnecessarily. They should always seek help, either for themselves or their child at the earliest possible opportunity to see whether, in fact, there is anything different about what’s happening between them. And even if there is a difference, whether actually there is anything we know about effective interventions that might help to change whatever it is that’s causing concerns. But again, I think we know that moms and dads are the most exquisitely sensitive instruments for measuring development in their children. And they should also think about the fact that they are designed to pick up signs of differences because that’s what caregivers evolved to do. They evolved to pick up the needs of their child and to work out how to best accommodate those needs and also specifically to notice when there are differences. The last thing also is that some parents who may have a history of differences in their children, some parents have never seen typical development, and they don’t know what it looks like. And I think there are many families who just don’t know what a typically developing child looks like at different ages because they’ve never had that experience themselves. And there are plenty of tools available in that right now, navigators that include videos of children with particular differences versus typical development that can now be used to provide parent education or clinician education so that it’s easier for people to learn what those red flags are earlier on and to know what services are available for, what possibilities are available for early detection and intervention.
And I think the most important message for parents, finally, is that you should enjoy your baby’s infancy. And the most important thing is to take joy in your child and to enjoy your child’s infancy, even if they do have a disorder or disability. Or a difference because your baby’s infancy is precious, and it only lasts for a particular amount of time. And above all, whatever is happening with you or your child, you should enjoy your baby and enjoy your baby’s childhood.
I love that! I couldn’t agree more. And I think that’s a perfect wrap-up to this conversation that enjoying your baby. I think parents are so curious to know all of this and everything that they can do and to seek out tools. But I think what we’ve learned here today and we learned in last week’s conversation as well, is that we already have most of the tools inside of us. It’s already innate. We already do these things naturally. We already are in tune to see if there is something developmentally off base that we need to look into. So I just thank you for coming here and for having this conversation with us. Gordon. And I hope that the parents out there listening feel encouraged to know that they already have those tools in their tool belt. The most important thing to do is enjoy your baby socially engaged with your baby, and the rest will handle itself.
Thank you so much for having me. It’s been a real pleasure of mine and I’m really just so happy to have been able to talk to you today.
Well, that is all we have for you today. Thanks so much for joining us on Growing Up Brainy. Till next time, we hope you’ll subscribe, leave us a review, or best of all, follow smalltalk.tech on Instagram to join in the conversation.
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