Does babbling sound native? Listener responses to vocalizations produced by Swedish and American 12- and 18-month-olds  

Olle Engstrand, Karen Williams and Francisco Lacerda



5 experienced phoneticians were asked to discern ambient language effects on vocalizations produced by American and Swedish 12- and 18-month-olds (with 8 children in each language and age group), and to motivate their decisions in terms of word or phonetic cue perception. Group results indicated that listeners did not perceive effects of ambient language on pure babbles for either of the two age groups, whereas a clear effect appeared in both age groups given a more liberal definition of babbling. This is taken to suggest that results of ambient language listening tests may depend crucially on judgments of vocalizations' word status. As compared to the group trends, listener responses to individual children's vocalizations did not indicate that a majority of either 12- or 18-monthers were sufficiently native-sounding to be reliably identified on the basis of ambient language. This variability is suggested to provide a partial explanation for the conflicting results of ambient language studies previously reported in the literature. A closer analysis of listeners' use of phonetic cues indicated that one single phonetic property, the grave tonal word accent, was discerned by most listeners in vocalizations produced by the Swedish 18-monthers; this property was also discerned by one listener in vocalizations produced by Swedish 12-monthers. This result is consistent with the generally held belief in the primacy of tonal features in phonetic acquisition, and with recent results indicating that Swedish mothers tend to enhance word accents at the expense of segmental properties in baby talk.

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