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

VIDEO: Internet famous Yukon-based bhangra dancer explores Vancouver Island

Gurdeep Pandher spreads joy through dance, forms cross-cultural connections amid pandemic

Build a new pool or fix the old? Port Hardy mayor wades in

‘… whatever we do going forward we want the support of the community’

Fear and ignorance have spiked racism in the province: B.C’s human rights commissioner

Kasari Govender has been virtually interacting with citizens in remote, rural areas to address concerns of discrimination

COVID-19 tests come back negative in remote First Nation community

“There are no suspected cases in the community at this time.”

53 new COVID-19 cases, no new deaths cap off week of high infection rates in B.C.

Roughly 1,500 people are self-isolating because they either have COVID-19 or have been exposed to it

Unofficial holidays: the weird and wonderful things people celebrate around the world

On any given day of the year, there are several strange, silly or serious holidays to observe

Missing teen visiting Courtenay found safe

She had last been seen going for a walk on Aug. 6

Moving on: Tanev scores 11 seconds into OT as Canucks oust Wild

Vancouver beats Minnesota 5-4 to move into first round of NHL playoffs

Fitness non-profit challenges citizens to invent a game to be physically active

The campaign was launched after a study showed only 4.8 per cent of children and youths in Canada met required standards of the 24-hour movement guidelines

Gene editing debate takes root with organic broccoli, new UBC research shows

Broccoli is one of the best-known vegetables with origins in this scientific haze

VIDEO: U.S. Air Force pilot does fly-by for B.C. son amid COVID border separation

Sky-high father-son visit plays out over White Rock Pier

3 Vancouver police officers test positive for COVID after responding to large party

Union president says other officers are self-isolating due to possible exposure

New mothers with COVID-19 should still breastfeed: Canada’s top doctor

Dr. Theresa Tam made the recommendation during World Breastfeeding Awareness Week

Most Read