Baby talk is similar all over the world

A whopping 95 per cent of developmental science is based on only five cent of the world’s population

There are vast differences in early child-rearing environments across cultures. For example, the popular French documentary Babies, which documents the life of infants in five different cultures, depicts the multitude of ways infants can be raised across different ecological and cultural contexts.

These differences illustrate the reality of infants growing up in distinct contexts. Anthropologists have been documenting such variability for decades producing detailed ethnographies of parenting, family life and socialization practices across different cultural settings. Developmental psychologists have found that these early experiences shape human development.

Yet despite these fascinating differences, a whopping 95 per cent of developmental science is based on only five cent of the world’s population.

The majority of developmental psychology studies are based on WEIRD societies: western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic populations. Given this imbalance, one might wonder whether our knowledge of child development extends beyond urban, North American societies. The answer is, it depends.

In my research, I spend time with mothers, fathers, grandparents and babies to look at the ways in which they communicate, interact, teach and learn from one another. I am an associate professor of psychology at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. I was trained by both a developmental scientist (Philippe Rochat at Emory University) and a bio-cultural anthropologist (Joseph Henrich at Harvard University).

I use my training in developmental methods to explore questions surrounding early experience and development across cultures. I have been fortunate to be welcomed into the homes of families in different corners of the globe.

Attachment parenting

For the past six years, I have been working primarily in one community in Vanuatu. Vanuatu is a group of islands, a three-hour flight from Brisbane, Australia.

Vanuatu was colonized by both the French and English. I have been working in a community on Tanna, Vanuatu. Historically, nearly half of the population on Tanna island has rejected colonization and all that it imposed: western education, languages and forms of religion. Therefore, Tanna has provided an interesting and remarkable forum for looking at socialization goals and developmental outcomes. Tanna is considered somewhat of a natural experiment for examining the impact of variation in socialization on development.

For example, Heidi Keller, professor of psychology at Universitat Osnabrück in Germany has recently suggested that one of the foundational human development theories, attachment theory, is western-biased and in need of revision. Attachment theory suggests that the bond (the first relationship) between a child and her caregiver is the foundational human relationship upon which all other relationships are built. Keller suggests, however, that our understanding of human development is based on child development as it occurs within the western context.

In our work, we examine caregivers and their infants in different societies, to determine the essential elements of child development.

What is common across cultures and what is different? Which theories need reformulation and which ones hold steady despite cultural differences?

Eye-tracking technology

In a recent study, my colleague Mikolaj Hernik and I used eye-tracking technology to compare the ways babies and caregivers communicate on Tanna. In this study, we showed babies short video clips with audio recordings of adults speaking in different ways: regular adult-directed speech and baby talk (or, infant-directed speech), and we observed and analyzed the way the babies responded.

We found that infants shifted their attention following the infant-directed speech, but not the adult-directed speech.

This suggests that infants on Tanna are using communication cues in strikingly similar ways to infants in other regions of the world.

This research, alongside other work examining infant development, suggests that parents and babies communicate in remarkably similar ways despite striking variation in cultural practices.

Tanya Broesch, Associate Professor, Simon Fraser University , The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Two new bridges to be built along Highway 16 between Port Clements, Tlell

Ministry of Transportation says $5.4-million project expected to be complete in fall 2020

‘Now Is the Time’ doc will start streaming on National Indigenous Peoples Day

Film featuring Haida carver Robert Davidson will launch June 21 for free on NFB website

Haida Gwaii couple frustrated after Air Canada cancels flight, denies compensation

Mike Racz says another passenger received $1,000 while he was only offered e-coupon and promo code

Haida Gwaii teachers heading back to empty classrooms on June 1

SD50 working with CHN following May 21 request to keep school closed until state of emergency lifted

COVID-19 highlights lack of connectivity in First Nations communities

Many don’t have access required to utilize online platforms, says First Nations Technology Council

VIDEO: Green Coast offers free kayaking to Haida Gwaii residents

First “pop-up paddle” held Monday, May 25; free community paddles expected to continue weekly

Feds looking at ways to reunite families amid COVID-19 border restrictions with U.S.

Some families with members of dual-citizenship have become separated due to the pandemic

Condition in kids with possible COVID-19 link being studied in Canada

This month, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued an alert to doctors about MIS-C

‘I knew what he wanted’: Kootenay man spends hours in tree as black bear patrols below

Francis Levasseur is no stranger to the outdoors, but a recent run-in with a bear caused quite a scare

COVID cancelled their wedding plans, so they married on a BC mountaintop

Ceremony was live streamed to friends and family around the world

Introducing the West Coast Traveller: A voyage of the mind

Top armchair travel content for Alaska, Yukon, BC, Alberta, Washington, Oregon and California!

Trudeau acknowledges racial unrest in U.S.; ‘We also have work to do in Canada’

‘Anti-black racism, racism, is real; it’s in the United States, but it’s also in Canada,’ Trudeau says

State of Local Emergency declared for Boundary as communities brace for river flooding

Warm weather and heavy rain could cause sections of Kettle River system to swell beyond 2018 levels

Large cruise ships barred from Canadian waters until end of October: Garneau

Last year 140 cruise ships brought more than two million visitors to Canadian ports

Most Read