LING/COGS Colloquium: How should we sound when we talk to babies? Rethinking what we know about the phonetics and phonology of infant directed speech


In contemporary research on language development, there is a renewed focus on what babies (should) hear. For example, public initiatives, like the “30-million word gap” or “Providence Talks,” apply normative standards to the quantity of richness of parent talk, while other research trends identify socio-pragmatic features of ‘high-quality’ parent talk. Here, I review research that questions this normative perspective to the phonetics and phonology of infant-directed speech, or IDS: Does everyone speak to babies using higher pitch, slower speech rates, and more variable articulation, etc. … and if not, should they? I will then present work taht examines these issues in two ways. First, I report an analysis of IDS phonetics from a large corpus of urbanized North American caregivers, asking whether the enhancement of prosodic features is correlated with other ‘positive’ estimates of parent talk. Second, I report a cross-cultural comparison of IDS from Canadian and ni-Vanuatu mothers. Results, with prior work, suggest serious problems for normative approaches to IDS phonetics.