Da-da-da… — Duh!

Apr 4, 2011 by

Recently a YouTube video has gone viral in which two baby boys appear to “talk” to each other in those unmistakable baby sequences of “da-da-da”. The YouTube video is titled “twin baby boys have a conversation” and some of the viewer comments suggest that the boys have a “language” of their own — but do they?

What this video illustrates is the babbling stage in a child’s acquisition of language. While the rate of development differs from child to child, on average children start babbling around the age of five-six months and continue until their first birthday when they move on to protowords (more on that below). Unlike the vocal play that preoccupies a younger baby from about 4 to 6 months of age, when a baby simply tries out tongue movements, babbling involves practicing speech sounds.

Steven Pinker compares a child babbling to a person fiddling with a complex hi-fi system in an attempt to understand what the controls do. In fact, it might be more like figuring out a complex hi-fi system that is changing as you try to figure it out. This is because the larynx (or voicebox), originally high in the throat to let the baby breathe while swallowing, descends during the first year of life, allowing a pharynx to develop and all the sounds of human speech to be formed.

Babbling typically starts with vowels, then combinations of vowels and consonants, especially in the form of consonant-vowel syllables. Here too first a baby goes through a series of “reduplicated babbling” when the same consonant-vowel syllable is repeated, like [bababa] or [dadada], and then gets into a more variegated pattern, like [dagika].

An interesting thing to note is that initially babbling incorporates more sounds that might not be in the baby’s ambient language, but more mature babbling may sound like the ambient language because only the sounds needed for that language are being used (in a parallel development, a baby unlearns “hearing” the sounds that are not used in his ambient language).

Furthermore, a more mature babbling (typically between 10 and 12 months of age) sounds more like the ambient language because it incorporates intonation (which, by the way, babies are extremely attuned to, even still in the womb), stress, rhytmic qualities of the language, etc. At this stage, a baby can convey meaning, express requests and demands, and is aware of social interaction. This is indeed what the two twin boys in the YouTube video seem to be doing.

But babbling does not equal language. Phisiologically, it is a “practice stage” for full-fledged speech. However, cognitively a baby of this age does not have representational language yet. The “words” — which are really sequences of consonant-vowel syllables — do not mean anything yet. The more meaningful connection between sound and concepts/representations that constitute meaning starts only at the next stage of language acquisition — the proto-word stage (typically around the baby’s first birthday), when a child invents sound sequences to convey consistent meaning which bears no discernible resemblance to the sound of any word in the ambient language.

But even though the sound sequences in the babbling stage do not mean anything, people love to read meaning into them. This is the origin of the many so-called “baby words” like mommy and daddy (from the babbling sequences [mama] and [dada]). In many languages such babbling-like sound sequences become words for ‘mother’, ‘father’ etc. — the parents just think that the baby addresses them when in fact all a baby is doing is training its vocal apparatus.

So are the two twins boys in the video having a conversation? It is for you to decide how you want to define conversation. But language? No, they do not have that. Not yet.

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