We republish this article by Núria Esteve-Gibert, director of the Master’s Degree in Learning Difficulties and Language Disorders at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, published in The Conversation on September 1, 2022.

Birds sing with different melodies depending on their mood or emotional state. Cats meow differently depending on the needs they want to express. Nonhuman primates, such as chimpanzees or lemurs, produce specific vocalizations to interact with their peers. And the human Babies, before speaking with words, vocalize and babble differently to complain or show satisfaction.

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What do these situations have in common? The tool produced by these communicative acts: the use of melody.

More than words

Like some animals, humans use the melodic modulation of speech, the so-called prosody of language, To comunicate. By modifying the tone, the duration of the syllables or the intensity of the voice, we can express emotional states (joy, anger, surprise…), types of sentences (declarative, interrogative or imperative), or pragmatic nuances (such as irony, insistence or disbelief ).

The fact that both humans and other animals are capable of perceiving and understanding prosodic nuances when speaking to an interlocutor, and that we play with this strategy to express our emotional or intentional state, may have emerged as adaptive and functional trait. Its purpose would be to unite social groups, ensure the reproduction of the species and survive dangers.

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Prosody is key to explaining the origin of language both at the phylogenetic level (of the evolution of the species) and ontogenetic (of the development of language from childhood). Although it has traditionally been less studied than some other components of human language such as syntax or semantics, there is multiple scientific evidence of its essential role in our communication. And very particularly in the process of language development in babies.

In fact, along with gestures, it is the main communication tool until most babies are able to produce their first 25 words, around 18 months, as we discussed. it’s a job the researcher Pilar Prieto and myself. Let’s see why.

Cries with a German or French accent

In 2009, Dr. Birgit Mampe, from the University of Würzburg, in Germany, published together with three other colleagues a study in the journal Current Biology that impacted and continues to impact the field of language acquisition. They discovered that babies, a few hours after birth, cry differently depending on whether their parents speak German or French. In other words, the crying of newborns reproduces the melodic characteristics of the language that they have heard while they were inside the mother’s womb.

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The authors recorded the cries of 30 newborns of monolingual families german and others 30 of monolingual families french. After analyzing their tonal characteristics, they found that the Gallic babies mostly cried with a rising tone (it rose slowly and reached the peak towards the end of the cry), while the Germans almost always expressed themselves with a falling tone (the tonal peak occurred towards the end of the cry). the onset of crying and then progressively decreased).

The two patterns mimic the most characteristic prosody of each of the two languages. Although this study has not yet been replicated by other colleagues, he provided evidence that crying has linguistic information and that babies perceive the melody of speech already from gestation.

They love that we talk to them exaggeratedly

Prosody ultimately plays a fundamental role in the development of language early in life. Babies of a few weeks can perceive the prosodic patterns of adult speech, especially the rhythm and distribution of stressed syllables. Statistically compute the rhythm to distinguish their mother tongue from other languages.

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They love the prosody of “child-directed speech”, which is characterized by being much more melodic and exaggerated. This special way of speaking to them makes certain words more prominent and that, as a consequence, children pay more attention to the object or event to which they refer.

Intentional cries and vocalizations

Before producing his first words, babies can only express themselves through crying and vocalizations. From 9 or 10 months of life, both begin to have communicative intent; that is, they realize that through the sounds they produce with their mouths they can change the world around them.

Until then, adults react according to what we deduce is happening to them, but it is at 9 or 10 months when babies begin to cry and vocalize so that we respond in a certain way.

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How can we know if a baby is trying to tell us something? Again, it seems that the prosodic features are the key. Intentional vocalizations tend to be shorter and with more melodic variation (such as an exclamatory sentence in adults), while unintentional vocalizations (also called accidental either investigative) are much longer and monotonous.

The prosodic clues of these first expressions they give a lot of communicative information. They can serve to distinguish a complaint from a surprise or a show of satisfaction, or between a vocalization to ask for something and another to declaratively indicate a state of affairs.

I point, then I communicate

Another very clear way to know that a baby already communicates intentionally is that begins to point with finger or hand. These first pointing gestures usually appear between 10 and 12 months of age. From that moment and during the following months they are a very valuable source of information for know where they are in their linguistic and cognitive development.

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If a 13-month-old vocalizes and says “adda” while pointing to his favorite toy, we know that he is communicating with us to tell us the name of the toy or to ask us to give it to him. Spontaneously, it is very likely that we will respond by saying the full name of the object (for example, “Yes! The ball!”) and we will surely give or bring the ball closer to it.

From this rich three-way communicative exchange (baby, adult, object), the children learn that this thing has a name and that if they vocalize in a certain way and point to it, we will do everything possible so that they can reach it.

When we hear a baby cry it is important to remember that is your way of expressing your physical or emotional statefirst, and communicate with the world around you, after. Little by little, these first reflex sounds, cries and babbling will begin to take the form of words (the so-called proto-words), with communicative intent. Then the first words appear, but not before having gone through this linguistic journey in which the melody of speech has played a fundamental role.

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