Archive for February 2015 | Monthly archive page

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So anyone who’s ever been around babies, whether your own or someone else’s, and seen other people interact with their babies, will be aware of the phenomenon that is ‘baby talk’. I am of course referring to the sing-song speech, all the “coochicoochicoo”s and little noises that make the baby smile or giggle, and the “mama”s, “dada”s and “nana”s repeated over and over, as well as the general chitter-chatter of a conversation that is totally one-way and incomprehensible to the baby, and yet a core building block of the bond between parent and child.

Recently I have read about several studies conducted in this field, that have made me dwell on the concept of baby talk, and indeed talking in general. I was pondering on why humans talk – it’s obviously a key form of social interaction, a way of communicating whatever your needs or worries are (amongst many other things), and a way to connect with other people – I just wondered why talking? Body language works well enough for many animals, as do various grunts, growls and other noises – so why did we start talking and why just us – and when?

My next thought process focused on baby talk. More specifically, why do we talk differently to babies than we do adults? What are the benefits to baby of how we interact with them vocally and is this an instinctual thing? And lastly, why does it mostly seem to be women that communicate with babies in this way?

So I hit the internet highway, looking at various science articles and studies, recent press stories, and even part of a documentary to feedback to you on my findings. I found such a wealth of very interesting information, that my blog turned more into a giant essay, that I have since broken down into two separate parts. To follow is a summary of my findings on the history of human speech…

According to the Science Museum, humans are the only living creatures that use words or symbols to represent objects, actions, qualities, feelings and ideas. Although scientists disagree over how human language arose – some think our ancestors started talking as soon as our brains became large and sophisticated enough whilst others think it evolved slowly, from the gestures and sounds we used as apes, either way, many believe that all human languages came from one common language in Africa, and we do know that homo sapiens (our modern human ancestors) were using both words and paintings to describe hunting some 40,000 years ago. There are now over 5,000 languages spoken around the world, although some of these are nearly extinct, and it is thought that our unique sense of ‘self awareness’ (the connection of our experience of the world around us to our minds) – the thing that really makes us human – may have evolved after language gave us an ‘inner voice’ that allowed us to think and make plans.

Language is processed predominantly in the left side of the brain known as the ‘Broca area’ (named after the French physician who discovered it), and, according to a New Scientist article, as right-handed humans tend to process language in their left halves – left-handed people’s brains are “flip-flopped” and some researchers think that lop-sidedness in Broca’s area may help explain why humans alone developed language. When studied in chimps, although Broca’s area still tends to be larger in one half of their brain than the other, and that it kicks into action when they communicate with hand gestures, there were no differences in the number of neurons in the left and right Broca’s area for chimpanzees, as is the case for humans, and the ‘handedness’ of the chimps wasn’t related in any way to the brain region’s symmetry. The proportional size is also very different, as human brains are 3.6 times larger than those of chimpanzees on average, yet Broca’s area is more than 6 times larger in humans. Another nearby part of the brain, known as Brodmann area 47, which is important for extracting meaning from words, may have played an equally important role in humans’ gift for the gab. Lastly, scientists have found areas of our genome implicated in the development of language, shedding light on how networks of genes help to build our language-ready brains, and how variations in related genes can affect a person’s risk of developing a speech disorder – likely due to faulty wiring in the nervous system involving a protein called neurexin.

Asides from brain development, according to Brown University, another unique human evolutional trait that contributed to our use of language were changes to the lengths, shapes and sizes of our throats and mouths. During our evolution (around 100,000 years ago) our mouths started getting smaller and protruding less and our tongue became more flexible, so that it could be controlled more precisely. As the tongue changed, it moved down, pulling the larynx lower, which then led to a longer neck. This, plus the flexibility within the lips, let us form a wide range of sounds that we could not before produce – a way to effectively shape and control sound. In addition, we could also control how we strung the sounds together through our precise breath control. Monkeys can’t control their inhale and exhale the way we can — they can only make short sounds a few seconds long before they have to take another breath, whereas we can control how quickly or slowly our lungs release air – holding back on the lungs with our muscles. We use this breath control when we talk – first guessing the length of the sentence we are going to produce. If we didn’t control our breathing in this way, the pitch would rapidly descend as we got to the end of the lung balloon, and we’d damage our vocal chords. Fusing these sounds together to form words and sentences requires an enormous amount of fine motor control.

A recent study published in Current Biology suggests that infants begin picking up elements of what will be their first language in the womb, and certainly long before their first babble or coo. They claim that, in their last trimester as a foetus, babies are able to memorise sounds from the external world, with a particular sensitivity to melody contour in both music and language. This melody memory then influences the pattern of their cries as a newborn (with a clear difference between that of French and German crying melody patterns according to the research). The study also showed that newborns prefer their mother’s voice over other voices and perceive the emotional content of messages conveyed via intonation contours in maternal speech (a.k.a. “motherese”). Their perceptual preference for the surrounding language and their ability to distinguish between different languages and pitch changes are again based primarily on melody.

The Science Museum also states that we are born able to recognise and speak any language and that newborn babies can tell sounds ‘b’ and ‘p’ apart. They listen to people talking from the time they’re born, and start concentrating on their own language through ‘babbling’ between around six and nine months old – later learning single words, two word speech, and whole sentences around the age of three. By the age of 18 a typical human has learnt around 60,000 different words (or more if you’re Stephen Fry).

To be continued…

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