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Babies talk more when interacting with artificial objects than with things made by nature

When interacting with human-made objects, babies talk more than when they’re playing with natural items. This intriguing information comes from a new study by the University of Portsmouth.

When babies talk, babble, coo, and make other pre-speech sounds, they’re laying the groundwork for language development. But did you know that the objects around them could influence how much they “talk”?

Babies talk using “protohones”

Infants communicate with “protohones.” These are sounds like squeals, growls, or short word-like noises such as “da”, “aga”, and “ba”.

These noises might not seem like much, but they are the building blocks of speech. They eventually grow into real words and sentences.

Researchers found that these little sounds happen more often when babies play with toys or everyday household items. Babies made fewer sounds when they handled natural items like sticks, leaves, rocks, or bird feathers.

Babies talk more with shoes or pens than with sticks or rocks

The researchers also noticed that babies seemed more interested in household items than natural objects. They much prefer to play with mugs, shoes, and pens than with flowers or trees.

Dr. Violet Gibson is the lead author of the study and a psychologist at the University of Portsmouth. She explained why this happens, saying “Our findings suggest that object features have an impact on the way in which young children communicate,” she said.

“Natural objects were less likely to encourage infants to produce protophones. So, they may not promote language skill development as much as artificial objects.”

Dr. Gibson also pointed out that household items are designed to be used in specific ways. Toys, on the other hand, are made to catch a child’s attention.

These features might be why babies prefer them. These objects could also have played a part in how human language first came about.

Social gazing was also examined in this study

But this study wasn’t just about baby talk. The researchers also looked at how often babies gazed at their mothers while they played with the different types of objects.

This social gazing is a key part of early communication. The researchers found differences in the babies’ looking behaviors between the two object types.

Dr. Gibson explained that the babies in the study looked at their mothers more often when they were using natural objects. “It might be because they’re far less interested in natural objects, and look to their parents to assess their value,” she said.

Chimpanzees exhibit this same behavior as human babies

The University of Portsmouth team found similar behaviors in chimpanzees. Just like human babies, chimpanzees also use objects to communicate. They might even be shaped by social factors in the way they use objects.

Dr. Marina Davila‐Ross is a comparative psychologist at the University of Portsmouth. She said both studies showed how objects have a big impact on communication skills.

“But what is unique about them is the analysis of interactions with natural objects. This opens an interesting new door in language evolution research,” she said.

The team is looking forward to doing more research. They want to examine facial changes in babies and classify objects based on color, size, and shape.

They also want to compare these behaviors with species that are less social than chimpanzees. There’s still a lot to learn about how we and other animals learn to communicate. Every discovery opens a new door to understanding.

More about protohones and language development

Protohones are essentially the foundation of language development in babies. This term refers to the prelinguistic vocalizations that infants make, like cooing, babbling, and other sound-making behaviors.

Essentially, protophones are the earliest form of vocalization that babies use to experiment with sound before they begin to form actual words.

These pre-speech sounds form the building blocks for language development. Here’s how:

Cooing (around 2 months)

Cooing, which usually consists of vowel sounds like “oo” or “ah”, is one of the first stages of protophones. At this stage, infants are experimenting with their vocal cords and starting to engage in vocal play.

Babbling (around 6 months)

Babbling, another form of protophones, is when infants begin to produce consonant-vowel combinations like “ba”, “da”, or “ga”. This stage is important because it represents the child’s active engagement with sounds and the beginning of the articulation processes necessary for word formation.

Jargon Stage (around 10 months)

In the jargon stage, babies talk by producing a stream of sounds with adult-like intonation and rhythm. While this speech-like babbling doesn’t contain actual words, it is a crucial step in developing the rhythm and flow of speech.

Protophones are critical to language development

Understanding protophones is critical in early language development. When babies talk using protophones, they are engaging in the initial steps towards the formation of actual words and sentences.

Protophones represent a child’s exploration of sounds, learning how to manipulate their vocal apparatus, and practicing the rhythmic flow of language.

Research also shows that the frequency of an infant’s protophone production and the diversity of their protophones can predict later language outcomes. In other words, babies who produce a wide variety of sounds and who vocalize frequently tend to develop stronger language skills.

Furthermore, research like the University of Portsmouth study mentioned earlier suggests that interactions with both the social and physical environment – such as through object play – can stimulate protophone production and contribute to language development.

Thus, protophones are not just precursors to speech. They are also tools for infants to engage with and learn from their world.

Lastly, it’s worth mentioning that protophones aren’t limited to humans. Many other animals also produce pre-speech or pre-song sounds as part of their communication repertoire.

These shared behaviors can offer us interesting insights into the evolution and development of communication across species.

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