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What language is your baby speaking?
Your linguistic guide to baby babbling
Babies work on the pragmatics of babble.
Babies work on the pragmatics of babble. Courtesy Shutterstock
B

abies talk.

Twin babies have conversations with each other, complete with gesticulations; it may sound like "dadadadada" to us, but clearly something is going on. Little girls carry on phone conversations with their daddies in a language that sure sounds like it must mean something. Little darlings in car seats carry on monologues that seem unnervingly like they're transmitters for messages from the alien mother ship.

Is there a baby language? Are there several baby languages? And does baby talk vary according to whether they're English babies or French babies or German babies or Chinese babies or…?

The answer to one of those questions is yes. The answer to another one of them is "depends on how you look at it."

The "depends on how you look at it" question is: "Are there several baby languages?" It's more accurate to say there are three main kinds of baby babbling. They're not really language systems, but different ways of babbling. And they may have real communicative value.

Linguists have long taken it as a given that there are distinct phases of babbling that babies go through as they get older, but recent studies have indicated that there can be quite a lot of overlap. Listen to your baby to identify the style of babbling:

1. Marginal babbling
This is the first stage of real vocal play. When your baby squeals or says, "Ghghghghgh," it's the beginning of a lifetime of not shutting up. Your baby is trying out sounds one by one, sometimes to express something, sometimes just for the heck of it.

2. Canonical babbling
Linguists call syllables made of one consonant and one vowel "canonical." Around 6 to 9 months of age, babies start saying a lot of the same syllable over and over: "Dadadadadada! Dadada! Dadadadadadadada!" They're simple canonical syllables, so this is called "canonical babbling." It can also be called "reduplicated babbling," for pretty obvious reasons.

3. Variegated babbling
Once the babies get past the one-sound stage, past the repeating two-sound stage, they get to the point where they're saying things that sound like words, almost. They vary the sound a lot, though studies indicate that it's mostly through changing the opening of their mouths rather than through changing the positions of their tongues all that much. They're not necessarily making all possible speech sounds. There are some sounds they probably won't really get the hang of for a couple of years yet. But they're training the muscles.

But is it language?
When they're babbling, are babies trying to make actual language? Are they actually making language that they can understand? Do the sounds they make vary according to what language their parents speak at home?

There's no evidence that babies are making sentences when they babble. You don't get consistent words or patterns of words. That comes when they're older. They're still getting the hang of the concept of words, and of identifiable distinct speech sounds. But there's something else they're also getting the hang of: Intonation.

Intonation and phonemes
The tone pattern you use when saying something conveys important information about your intention and attitude. It also differs from language to language, and even dialect to dialect. You can tell the difference in the "music" of the speech between a person from Brooklyn and one from Atlanta. And if someone is speaking a different language altogether — well, consider the sound of French. Unlike English, its syllables are all said with about the same length and stress, and the final one may be held a bit longer. And the musicality of it is different. Babies learn and practice these things.

Babies also learn the specific phonemes — the recognizable consonants and vowels — of the language they hear. For instance, they learn that in English "g" is a sound you use but "ghgh" is not. So by the time they're well into babbling, babies are trying out the sounds they hear around them, and the intonation patterns too.

Studies have shown that speakers of a language can usually tell when a baby is babbling "in their language" from the specific sounds used and also from the intonations. So yes, babies babble somewhat differently in different languages. Oh, and by the way, deaf babies who are "spoken to" in sign language will "sign babble" with gestures.

Intonation babies and word babies
So which do babies do more — try out specific phonemes in words, or try out specific intonation patterns? It seems to depend on the baby. Forty years ago, the linguist John Dore observed that there may be two kinds of babies: "intonation babies" and "word babies." The word babies try out word sounds and rush ahead to make different specific words as soon as they can. The intonation babies are more interested in playing with the intonation longer, getting the overall sound musicality down first, and they stick with variegated babbling longer. If you have a baby that's around a year old, you've probably already noticed which your baby likes doing better.

Okay, but is it language?
Maybe. Consider this: One thing babies are getting the hang of, regardless of which approach they take, is pragmatics.

When you speak to someone, you're doing something, not just speaking for the heck of it. You want to have an effect on them, maybe make them do something. Pragmatics is why you're talking in the first place.

Babies, of course, are little balls of wants and needs, and you, the parent, are the fulfiller of most of those. Babbling babies are finding out what sounds, said what way, will get the response they want. They're also playing around with the sounds, of course, but that's mainly sharpening their instruments. Some sharpen their instruments more, and some cut to the chase and aim for effect — and that has no apparent relation to whether they're word babies or intonation babies. You can affect a hearer either way.

You may think babies first start using language when they say the first words that you recognize. But actually, the first time they make a noise and a gesture, and you give them what they want, they're already getting the hang of the most basic thing in language: getting other people to react the way they want. Before they've learned your language, they've gotten you to learn some of theirs.

James Harbeck is a professional word taster and sentence sommelier (an editor trained in linguistics). He is the author of the blog Sesquiotica and the book Songs of Love and Grammar.

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