What’s the point of talking to your child?

I would like to recruit ICCI readers to help me solve a mystery that has long puzzled me. I have met many linguists who know (or think they know) that: 1) There are cultures where children are not spoken to until they already talk fluently (1 or 2 years of age). 2) In some cultures, infants are spoken to in exactly the same way as adults are; that is, infant-directed speech = adult-directed speech. It follows from (1) and (2) that infant-directed speech is a superfluous occurrence, and children can develop language perfectly well even if they are never addressed, or if they are talked to in run-of-the-mill sentences. What are the sources of these firm linguistic beliefs? I've been able to trace some statements that could be interpreted as evidence for (2), but in each case there is some counterevidence or counterarguments to be found…

– The Kaluli, according to Bambi Schieffelin (1994), place their child facing away from the mother, who doesn't talk to them. However, other people may then address the child (it's unclear to me whether they speak in what we would describe as adult-directed-speech-like in this case) and the mother then responds for the child in a high-pitched, childish manner (so this could be described as infant-directed-speech-like) – Heath (1983) claims that low-socioeconomic status African-American families of the Piedmont Carolinas talk little to their children, and certainly not in an infant-directed-speech manner (Phillips 1994 says differently for African-Americans in Illinois). – Ratner & Pye (1984) analyzed 20 sentences from 3 Quiche Maya talkers and did not find an increase in pitch height when addressing babies; so they concluded that infant-directed speech is not universal (Fernald et al. 1989 note that the Qiche Mayan use higher pitch as a sign for deference, and the adult-directed speech samples in Ratner and Pye's study were from interactions of the locals with the linguists, who will almost certainly have commanded greater deference than a 2-year-old). In contrast, the sources of (1) have so far escaped me. The only thing that remotely resembles such a statement comes from Ochs (1982, p. 85) who reports that Samoan caregivers take a long time to respond to their children's requests or complaints. I couldn't even find a plausible linguistic reference that stated (1), although I assure you that every time I present at a conference that is not infant-centered, someone in the audience invariably claims (1). So is the evidence I cited above all there is to the opinion of IDS as a luxury? More specifically: a) What linguistics textbooks or fundamental references state (1)? b) What references do they give to support it? c) Do these references check out — that is, do other people who have studied these cultures agree? d) Is all the evidence for (2) those cases I cited above, or am I missing more substantial data?
References Fernald, Anne, Traute Taeschner, Judy Dunn, Mechthild Papousek, Bénédicte de Boysson-Bardies & Ikuko Fukui. 1989. A cross-language study of prosodic modifications in mothers’ and fathers’ speech to preverbal infants. Journal of Child Language 16. 477–501. Heath, Shirley Brice. 1983. Ways with words: language, life, and work in communities and classrooms. New York: Cambridge University Press. Ochs, Elinor. 1982. Talking to children in Western Samoa. Language in Society, 11. 77–104. Phillips, Ruby Sara Coachman. 1994. Infant-directed speech in African American mothers: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign dissertation. Ratner, Nan Bernstein & Clifton Pye. 1984. Higher pitch in BT is not universal: acoustic evidence from Quiche Mayan. Journal of Child Language 11. 515–522. Schieffelin, Bambi B. 1994. How Kaluli children learn what to say, what to do, and how to feel. New York: Cambridge University Press.


  • comment-avatar
    Gordon Ingram 13 February 2012 (23:17)

    I suspect that the linguists may have got the idea of (1) from social/cultural anthropologists, who as we know are often ready to present other cultures as alien in many respects. You could try HRAF, if you have access:


    Cross-searching on the codes relating to infancy/childhood and language, I found the following from LeVine et al. (1994):

    “Observation showed that Gusii mothers talk to their babies during the first 9 to 10 months after birth only about half as frequently as their American counterparts. They are verbally responsive to infant vocalization less often than the American mothers are, and we rarely found Gusii mothers attempting to elicit a vocal response or carrying on a sustained verbal exchange with a baby or even a toddler. Mothers do not eagerly await or promote the toddler’s speech skills, and calling a young child omokwani (a talker) is closer to criticism than to praise.”

    Indeed as I understand it, it is well established that middle-class Euro-American mothers talk to their infants unusually frequently. (I think you should also be able to find references for low-SES Euro-Americans talking to infants less frequently.) The anthropologists’ finding that non-Euro-Americans talk to infants much less often may have become exaggerated in linguists’ minds, as anecdotes often do, until it became not talking to them at all. It may even have been presented as such in its anthropological source: immediately following the passage above, LeVine et al. note that

    “Nevertheless, mothers and other caregivers do talk to babies, and what they say is revealing.”

    They go on to present a careful quantitative analysis of infant-directed speech, based on observations recorded by native, female fieldworkers. It is easy to see how less careful male ethnographers, who had little contact with women and children and an urge to present the other culture as alien, might have left it at: “They almost never talk to their infants”.

    R. A. LeVine et al., 1994, “Communication and social learning during infancy”. In R. A. LeVine et al., eds., Child care and culture: Lessons from Africa. New York: Cambridge University Press.

  • comment-avatar
    Alex Cristia 15 February 2012 (18:24)

    Gordon, thank you for the reference. Your comment was very helpful, and I’ll definitely look into that resource, with which I wasn’t familiar.
    On the question of quantity, you were right that there is some within-culture variation. There was once a post in the language log, which discusses some classical findings on SES & amount of words heard by the child in US & UK: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2712
    Curiously, some ongoing work suggests that the amount of words addressed to the child, not simply the overall amount of speech overheard, correlates with later language development in the short term (18 months input predicts 24-month-old outcomes): http://www.lenafoundation.org/pdf/LENA-Conf-2011/Presentations/ LENA-Conference-2011-Anne-Fernald.pdf
    Of course, it remains to be seen whether this holds for the longer term, and for data gathered in other places.

  • comment-avatar
    Dan Sperber 17 February 2012 (11:35)

    Thanks to Gordon for his useful comment and info. Actually it would be very, very surprising to find a culture where children are not spoken to until they themselves are fluent. On the other hand, the claim that ‘motherese’ is not universal, even if surprising, is not completely implausible. If a society without motherese were found, it would suggest that motherese is not essential for language acquisition, but may still play a role in other respect, pedagogy à la Csibra-Gergely in particular. Relevant evidence anybody?

  • comment-avatar
    Davie Yoon 19 February 2012 (07:37)

    Hi Alex et al

    Thanks for raising this topic. Ever since I heard it mentioned at a CEU summer course back in 2005, it’s been hanging around the back of my mind, nagging…

    For those cultures where the analysis of infant-directed speech has been characterized (infant-directed here meaning literally directed to an infant, rather than meaning motherese) — is anything known about the course (timing/order) of acquisition in language learners? Or of pragmatic competency (understanding turn-taking, etc)? I’m particularly interested in the Kaluli infants, whose primary caregivers appear to speak *for* their infants, rather than speaking *to* their infants. Do the infants appear to understand the special social meaning of this scenario, including their intended “role”? Or is such a coversation just another adult-adult conversation they are observing, no different from any other?

    Let’s assume the anthroplogy has been done well and there exists incredible variability in the quality/quantity/timing of social interaction and linguistic input during development. If there were then no measurable differences in the rate/skill-level of language acquisition as a consequence, this would be an important problem for several accounts of social cognitive development, no? Especially pedagogy.

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    Brent Strickland 25 February 2012 (01:08)

    Thank you for the interesting original post and comments. I’ve enjoyed reading this discussion. I did a bit of research on this and think there could be a few references to add.

    (1) Ingram., D. (1989) First language acquisition: Method, description and explanation. New York: Cambridge University Press.

    In this book he argues that cultures differ considerably in the degree to which adults modify their child directed speech in a way that differs from normal adult speech. Nevertheless, the learning curves on standard measures of language acquisition (e.g. vocabulary size, syntactic complexity, mean utterance length) do not vary cross-culturally in the ways one might expect.

    (2) Tamis-LeMonda, C., Bornstein, M.H., Baumwell, L. (2001) Maternal responsiveness and children’s achievement of language milestones. Child Development, 72, 748-767.

    In this article, the authors provide empirical evidence that in western cultures (at least in America), mother responsiveness (descriptions, play and imitation) combined with empathy predict the timing of language milestones during acquisition. However, it is still worth noting that pretty much all of these children end up talking. It more seems to be the case that parental interaction can speed up or slow down a natural growth process.

    I also recommend Frank Keil’s new text book on this called “Developmental Psychology.” Chapter 8 has a great review of all this literature and more.

  • comment-avatar
    Davie Yoon 19 June 2012 (21:59)

    In press at Developmental Science:

    Language input and acquisition in a Mayan village: how important is directed speech?
    Laura A. Shneidman and Susan Goldin-Meadow
    Article first published online: 18 JUN 2012 | DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-7687.2012.01168.x

    Theories of language acquisition have highlighted the importance of adult speakers as active participants in children’s language learning. However, in many communities children are reported to be directly engaged by their caregivers only rarely (Lieven, 1994). This observation raises the possibility that these children learn language from observing, rather than participating in, communicative exchanges. In this paper, we quantify naturally occurring language input in one community where directed interaction with children has been reported to be rare (Yucatec Mayan). We compare this input to the input heard by children growing up in large families in the United States, and we consider how directed and overheard input relate to Mayan children’s later vocabulary.

  • comment-avatar
    Robin Smith 21 March 2014 (12:40)

    Communication with the children is a very important part in raising kids properly and leading them to a good path. Every day we should allot some time to hear them and to understand their problems. Thank you for sharing the post.
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  • comment-avatar
    Christiane Cunnar 5 August 2014 (16:29)

    Hi all,

    I’ve been following the comments in the blog and agree with Gordon Ingram that the online cross-cultural database –eHRAF World Cultures could help in finding information about language acquisition. eHRAF’s unique features are its culture and subject classification system which help in locating the information in the text quickly and efficiently.

    First of all the ethnographic works in eHRAF World Cultures are organized by culture names, regions, subregions, and even subsistence types. This makes searching very systematic, whether one focuses on ethnic groups and indigenous people in Africa, or immigrant cultures in North America. This link at HRAF’s homepage gives a quick overview of all the cultures currently included in eHRAF: http://hraf.yale.edu/online-databases/ehraf-world-cultures/cultures-covered/by-regions-and-subsistence/.

    Secondly, subjects, based on a vast thesaurus called the Outline of Cultural Materials, are used by the HRAF analysts to index the ethnographic texts, compiled for each culture. Depending on the culture, compiled documents may range from 20 to 200, but all are about cultural and social aspects of that culture possibly including language acquisition. The OCM subjects enable a researcher to find paragraph- and page- level texts with information on the topic, but without using specific keywords such as “language acquisition,” it’s therefore good to use the “ADD Subjects” function in the eHRAF Advanced Search to pick the subjects to search across the regions, culture names, and subsistence types to find the texts on a particular topic. This link at HRAF’s homepage gives a quick overview of all the subjects and topics currently included in eHRAF: http://hraf.yale.edu/online-databases/ehraf-world-cultures/outline-of-cultural-materials. If you scroll down to OCM 850 you’ll see various topics for infancy and childhood.

    Lastly, eHRAF World Cultures is produced by Human Relations Area Files (HRAF), a non-profit organization at Yale University. Contact me at http://hraf.yale.edu and I’d be happy to give you temporary free access to this unique resource.