This just in…babies make noises!

As I mentioned in Monday’s Redux, there are few things that would have allowed me to avoid the YouTube Video of babbling twins this past week: an emergency lobotomy, a fiery crash, an alien abduction, and possibly, if I were the type, a week-long bender with my pals Jack and José. If you were actually on any of the aforementioned adventures, you might want to check out this video to catch yourselves up.

In a nutshell, twin boys, about a year-and-a-half old, are standing in front of the refrigerator and babbling at each other, seemingly having a ‘conversation.’ One appears to be more dominant and the other waits his turn patiently. Occasionally, the quieter twin also lifts the foot that has no sock on it. Speculation, of course, is that the missing sock is the topic of conversation.

Sure, they were cute, if a bit shrill. It was amusing to see them make each other laugh. It could also be fun for some to pretend what they’re saying, kind of like the famous patty cake cats. From my point of view, the most interesting aspect was watching the interaction of true peers: same age, same input and environment, similar inherited linguistic capabilities.

What struck me (as a linguist, of course!) was the repetition displayed. First, the same syllable was repeated over and over again, which tells me that they are still developing the motor skills for more complicated sounds, but that they do have the consonant-vowel syllable pattern of English down pat. Second, the intonation patterns were exaggerated and also repeated several times over. The first, more dominant twin always sounded like he was asking a question, and the second twin always sounded like he was giving an emphatic ‘No!’ to that question. Finally, the gestures that accompanied the ‘conversation’ were regular and came at very specific points in the intonation pattern.

It makes sense that the intonation would be the clearest, most accurate part of their speech. Many studies of first language acquisition have identified a behavioral/linguistic pattern in the mother’s speech, dubbed ‘motherese.’ The primary caretaker of children will often speak in a manner that is characterized by “slow, high-pitched speech with smooth, exaggerated intonation contours.” (Bloom, p.9) This is an easy linguistic feature to pick up on and imitate. I wouldn’t go as far as to say the boys understood the functions of those patterns they were practicing, but they certainly could reproduce them beautifully.

This all says to me that the twins were certainly testing out certain linguistic features of English, but were most likely acting out behavior that they had seen their parents exhibit. This point was also made in a New York Times article last week. We can’t say if the twins at that stage of development really can understand that the behavior they are practicing is language which communicates a very specific meaning. It may very well be that they are simply mimicking the entire behavior – intonation pattern, gestures, and turn-taking – and gaining an understanding that these actions and sounds produce certain results or behaviors when these large, lumbering adult creatures in the house perform them, and maybe they should learn to do the same.

All of this is interesting, of course, but something had me completely stymied. As of this evening, the original YouTube video got over 15 million hits. Are there 15 million linguists out there who are studying babbling? I seriously doubted it.

So here’s my question: why was this such a sensation? I mean…they were babbling. All children babble, including deaf babies who babble in signed languages. Is this new? Has no one ever seen babies babble before? Was the cute factor somehow exponentially greater than any other baby video simply because they are twins? Was it the socks? Judging by the constant presence on the Internet, on morning talk shows, and in the blogosphere (I’m part of the problem!), one would think the video was actually of the boys reciting selections from that Scottish play or inventing the cure for cancer.

The twins are made out to be the poster babies for The Precocious Society of America, and yet all they are doing is a natural part of what all humans have done when they learn a language. (And I’ve seen cuter babies.) I watched clips from morning shows and read several articles to find one common thread. I finally noticed that there were many mentions of ‘twin language’ and that these two boys were just caught in the act of speaking their ‘own’ language.

I’ll tell y’all the truth here. I got annoyed. I wasn’t exactly sure why, but that’s how I felt. Often when I get annoyed, I become obsessed with knowing everything about that which annoys me. I know, it’s a bit twisted, but there’s little I can do. I had a sinking feeling that this was going to be another case of people misunderstanding this crazy thing called language.

As it turns out, not only is babbling and turn-taking as displayed in the twins typical and not particularly precocious, but there is research that shows that language development in twins may actually be slower than in single children. According to Granger, “the literature indeed suggests that twins are more prone to language delays and disorders, due to several biological and social factors…However, many of these factors can (and do) affect singletons – twins are just more vulnerable.” Some of the factors that are a “higher incidence of prematurity, low birth weight or limited individual communication with their parents.” (Hudon)

Furthermore, what appears to be a separate ‘twin language’ is often more likely to be speech impediments or language delay exhibited in one twin that the other one mirrors. The reason parents, siblings, or baby-sitters can’t understand the language is because the twins are pronouncing it incorrectly, not because it’s a separate invented language. And in fact, a typical language milestone for 18-month-olds is the two-word string. According to Bloom, “there is a ‘word spurt’ or ‘naming explosion’ in which there is a rapid increase in children’s acquisition and use of words.” (p.7) These boys, however, were still exhibiting the repetitive syllabic babbling that presumably started when they were seven to eight months old. If there’s evidence that they are onto the two-word stage, it’s not on that video.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that the YouTube twins have a language delay or are showing speech impediments. But it also doesn’t mean that they are forming some secret skull-and-crossbones society with its own language that no one else will ever understand. They are not doing anything unusual. If they are, then it’s just as likely that they are doing something wrong as it is that they are doing something extra super duper special.

Never knowing when enough is enough, I visited the blog written by the mother of the YouTube twins. She wrote that she tries to teach the boys some American Sign Language vocabulary. On 24 Feb, she relates this incident: “Today, after signing ‘help’ every time I was helping them out, I found Twin R caught between the couch and wall, waving a fist around while babbling. I realized he was attempting the two handed ‘help’ sign, but he only had one hand available. Whoever decided that two hands would be necessary for signaling ‘help’ with proper ASL grammar, better not be looking for help in our household. Our official gesture just became waving one fist in the air.”

My first reaction was to have an apoplectic fit at the idea that she might actually believe that ‘someone decided’ to create ASL. Once I’d wiped the foam from my mouth, I focused on the memory of an example given in several of my college linguistic courses about the mistake of assuming context during field work. The story is of explorers arriving in a new land and encountering the natives who speak a different language, of which the explorers know nothing. A rabbit appears. The native points and yells, “hubadanitso!” (Don’t bother trying to figure out the language. I just totally made it up). The intrepid explorer thinks he has just discovered the word for ‘rabbit’ in this new language. Or has he? Really, what reason would the native have for suddenly deciding that it was time for a language lesson? And why start with ‘rabbit’?

In fact, the native has just yelled “Devil!” because the village has just experienced a sudden influx of rabbits which have eaten all the crops, spread disease, and bitten several children quite badly. The villagers hate rabbits and want to exterminate them. Our perception of a situation does not always match reality or match another person’s view of that same situation. Context is not always discernible to ‘outsiders.’

Just because a mother is signing ‘help’ to her sons when she is helping them doesn’t mean they have grasped the meaning of the sign, the situation, or the relationship between the two. For those who don’t know, the ‘help’ sign in ASL is one fist placed on the flat upturned palm of the other hand. Both hands are then lifted up slightly, as if the lower hand were lifting the fist, or ‘helping’ it up.

Now think of an 18-month-old boy stuck behind a couch ‘waving his fist around’. This doesn’t seem to be an extraordinary thing to do when suddenly unable to extricate oneself from furniture. How can a mother be sure that the boy is making a meaningful linguistic utterance rather than simply flailing? (There are actually ways to tell the difference. The short version would be that the gesture would be performed in a very rhythmic, regular way – much like the ‘babababa’ of spoken babble – and would probably not be ‘waving a fist around’ in an uncontrolled manner. If interested, you can find some links to articles on Laura Ann Petitto’s work herehere, and here.)

Parents may be experts on their particular children, but that doesn’t mean they understand what is actually happening with their children’s language development. In one study by Bishop and Bishop, it was found, in fact, that parents often misconstrued their children’s linguistic abilities: “There was a significant link between parental report of twin language and language delay.” This means that in many cases, parents who think that their children are making up a novel, private language are actually seeing language delays in their children.

I can perfectly understand why parents would project their hopes and desires for their children onto their behaviors; what I don’t understand is the willingness to do this at the risk of ignoring what their children actually can do, rather than what they think their kids can do.

What I also don’t get is why there are still so many people ready and willing to believe that because the boys are cute, because their babbling sort of sounds like a conversation, and because it’s all on the internet, then the behavior must be exceptional in some way. I think what it comes down to is that I just have to accept that more people are willing to attribute exceptional behavior where there is none, and to believe what they want to believe rather than learn the truth.

Edited to add: If anyone is interested, I think these girls provide a much more interesting display of language development amongst twins, but alas, only got about 13,064 hits rather than 15 million.

Sources referenced:

Bishop, D.V.M., and Bishop, S.J. (1998) “Twin Language: A risk factor for language impairment?” Journal of Language, Speech, and Hearing Research, Vol 41 (1): 150-160.

Bloom, Paul. (1993) Language Acquisition: Core Readings. Cambridge: The MIT Press.

Granger, Jennifer.  (2003) “Twins and Language Development: An Overview” SpeechPathology.com. Retrieved from  http://www.speechpathology.com/articles/article_detail.asp?article_id=36

Hudon, Mindy. (2009) “Twin Language: Talking the Same Talk” Children’s Speech Therapy Corner. Retrieved from  http://childrensspeechtherapycorner.blogspot.com/2009/04/twin-language-talking-same-talk.html

* NB: This last source is a secondary citation – I’m unsure where this article originally appeared, so the 2009 date may not be accurate.

15 thoughts on “This just in…babies make noises!

  1. I so enjoy your posts! After you mentioned this video on Monday, I had to watch it. I will confess that my short attention span and my aversion to babies (or anything that makes messes and causes sleep loss) caused me to not view the entire video. My first thought was, “These kids seem too be a bit too old to be babbling!” They were doing a very nice job of mimicking the turn taking and intonations of conversation, but I certainly didn’t find it overly astonishing. Now, had they been dicussing string theory, or even the attributes of string cheese, I would have been impressed! Have a great day!

    • Ha! String cheese! Too funny :) Now, of course, I want some.

      Frankly, I’m surprised I watched the video all the way through as well. I suppose my desire to see if it got more interesting overruled the shrillness. It held more promise at the beginning but when it continued to just be the same pattern, I lost interest.

      And yet, I could watch silly cat videos for hours! ;)

  2. It’s utterly romantic, isn’t it, to imagine that your super-special twins have created their own magical language?

    I saw the video on the Today show last week. I laughed because babies babbling make me laugh. I’m also not a mother to a babbling baby. As a (hopefully) future mother, I like to imagine that I’ll impose all my years of English studies skills upon my children and create The World’s Smartest Kids. What I love about your post was that it was a Reality Check. I think all parents, educated or not, fantasize that they will raise The World’s Smartest/Best/Most Beautiful Kids. And, surely, my kids will be My Smartest Kids. But your post reminds us all that there are milestones to be met in language acquisition and then there are warning signs.

    I’ve heard of those studies, too, that suggest that twins can actually hinder their development because they’re “only” exposed to each other (as far as socializing with a specific age group goes). It’s worth considering that, although strangely appealing and adorable to watch, we shouldn’t kid ourselves into believing that the twins are actually consciously creating language. I hope that their mother does take their language-acquisition a little more seriously.

    And the “help” situation makes me wonder…is the sign for helping different from the sign asking for help? Like, if I were distressed and wanting to communicate “HELP!” would I sign the fist-over-palm version of “help”?

    What bothers me about people teaching their children sign language is that they tend to forget that it’s all about association. I’ve taught my puppy to high-five and shake on command. I can kneel in front of her and say, “Annie, shake!” And I gesture with my palm up. She puts her paw in my hand. She would seem to know “shake” to mean “to greet one another and shake forelimbs.” Do I actually believe my dog knows English and understands what I mean when I say the word “shake”? Of course not. She knows that when I make that sound and gesture with my hand that way, she gets a treat when she does this. Not to reduce sign-language-acquisition in children, but it just reminds me of that, at least in the very early stages. Annie learned to shake and high-five in two days. To believe that a child could learn the nuances of the word “help” with all of its definitions and implications in a single day (and not only to learn the sign but to apply it) is a fantasy! Mom is in la-la land! Is it possible that with continued practice her children will learn to communicate via sign language? Of course! Just like it’s possible that a child will learn to communicate via spoken language with practice. But let’s not stop at the babbling, at the wild waving of a fist. Let’s help our children transform those words and not encourage them to just stop at the mimicking phase.

    Sigh. Thanks for such an insightful post! We can only hope that the twins’ mother reads your blog, lol.

    • Thanks Mrs H :) I have a feeling if the mother did read this, she’d just think I was a bitch ;)

      As for the signing, movement does make a difference in sign language. The basic parameters of a sign are handshape, orientation, location, and movement. This means that you could have an open hand, fingers splayed, palm facing to the side, thumb on the chin and stationary, you have the sign for mother. Change only one parameter – now the location is on the forehead – and you change the meaning to ‘father’. Or, change the movement – start from the chin and move the hand outwards with two quick ‘bounces’ – and you have grandmother. If you move the hand too quickly, however, and without the bounce, you have the sign for ‘vomit’ (which, granted, is usually signed with a different facial expression!)

      This roughly equates to our phonological system in spoken languages. Take the same word – kit – and change one parameter (initial /k/ stops the air at the back of the mouth, but now let’s let the air through) – you get hit. Or, change the location of where the air stops and you get ‘bit’. Stop vibrating the vocal chords on the initial sound and you get pit.

      Movement can also determine grammatical change in ASL. For example, the sign for ‘sit’ is two handed. Imagine the first two fingers of your right hand ‘sitting’ on the extended first two fingers of your left hand. The verb is performed by firmly placing the outstretched right two fingers onto the extended left two fingers: http://www.signingsavvy.com/sign/sit
      The noun ‘chair’ however, is performed by tapping the fingers of the right hand twice on the fingers of the left hand: http://www.signingsavvy.com/sign/chair

      This is a common pattern in ASL, just like we can change the verb re-CORD into the noun RE-cord by changing the stress. For the word ‘help’, the movements are similar, though the interesting thing is that you can mark the subject and object through movement. If I help you, then I move the sign away from my body towards you, and the opposite if you help me. If you help someone else, I start the sign near you and move it towards the third party help-ee.

      If that kid had been signing ‘help’ and really understood it as part of a linguistic system, he would have been making regular, repetitive, distinct movements either up and down or towards himself (identifying himself as the object). I don’t know if he wasn’t doing that or if it’s a case of imprecise writing on the mother’s part, but ‘waving his fist around’ to me doesn’t sound like he was signing. Using one sign in a few situations isn’t ‘teaching’ your kid sign language. If she really wants them to learn, she needs to be signing to them regularly to provide rich input (not just random vocabulary), just as she needs to talk to them regularly to provide them with rich input of a spoken language. Parents don’t talk to their children in Tarzan-speak, but that’s what it would be like if she’s trying to get them to learn sign language by randomly throwing individual signs at them.

  3. I watched a few seconds, which was about all I needed. “Twin language” never would have crossed my mind. It’s funny because they’re interacting like they’re having a real conversation, but they’re not using words that mean anything. That’s all. :)

  4. I totally agree with you on this. I heard a child making that exact same babbling noise in a restaurant the night the video first came to my attention. So, am I to believe the twins somehow telepathically transferred their “secret language” to some other random infant? I DON’T THINK SO. They were simply mimicking the interaction of conversation and amusing each other with their ability to make noise. I don’t get the hoopla.

    • I don’t either. We’re so willing to overstate the ‘real’ meaning behind mysterious things. It’s like how an unknown noise at night seems so sinister, but once we realize it’s the radiator, then the same exact noise doesn’t scare us anymore. Language and child development is a mystery to people, but many of them may take the chapter or two they read for Psych 101 in college as being all they need to know, and they fancy themselves experts. Or they want to believe that a really normal, non-remarkable behavior is suddenly infused with secret meaning.

      Of course, they cynic in me believes it’s a total lack of imagination combined with an overly-developed baby-centric focus that made 15 million people, several newspapers, and a morning show or two believe it was the second coming! ;)

  5. Fascinating post thank you. I saw that youtube of the twin boys and it seemed to me (now, I’m not a linguist mind you but I speak four languages fluently) that they were repeating sounds tha they liked and enjoying the repetition. I don’t get the hoopla at all. The idea that it was ‘twin language’ never crossed my mind at all. One twin did seem to be more dominant than the other though.

    • Thanks, Anthea! You’re right – one twin was certainly more dominant. And if it were an example of twin ‘language’, then it should have some more evidence of…you know…language and not just syllabic babbling. They’re so delighted in the sounds that they are making that it seems obvious they are playing a game and not having a ‘conversation’. Yes, it’s cute to see babies laughing like that, but if that were all, there are tons of videos of cuter babies laughing in more amusing ways. My favorite one is the kid who’s scared of his mother blowing her nose, but as soon as she stops, he laughs hysterically. It’s like he looooves being that scared. That kid is going to grow up to be a hardcore grindhouse film lover! ;)

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