Babbling twins

Some of you will have seen these videos already: Sam and Ren, fraternal twins, engaged in a conversation of very animated babbling. Regardless of your tolerance for cute-baby videos, the chat is great fun and quite fascinating to watch – especially the second video, which has been watched many millions of times in just a few weeks:

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The boys’ mother is a twin herself, and she shares her family’s adventures here. (After the footage went viral, it wasn’t long before parodies popped up, but I’ve yet to see one worth linking to.) Some of the media coverage suggests the possibility that the twins have a “secret language”, but this is improbable. As Mark Liberman writes in a comment at Language Log,

It seems unlikely that material as phonetically unmodulated as this recording actually contains any communicated lexical material (as opposed to acting out conversational interaction without any propositional content). The “private languages” of siblings are not like this, for an obvious reason: it’s hard to develop an effective human spoken language with only one syllable. . . . It’s possible that variations in timing and pitch are carrying some quasi-lexical information here . . . but I rather doubt it.

Sam and Ren’s discussion might be minimal in its selection of syllables, but the twins show great range of tone, timing, and gesture. They deploy all sorts of conversational skills, and the fact that they are twins means each has a peer at a similar level of development with whom he can practise.

Many of their vocalisations take the form of reduplicated or reduplicative babbling (e.g., da-da-da), but there’s far more communication taking place than just repetition of simple utterances. Hope Dickinson, of the Speech-Language Pathology Program at Children’s Hospital Boston, says the twins are

demonstrating great mimicking of multiple aspects of conversation. . . . One thing they are using wonderfully is turn taking, as in first one “talks” and then pauses and the other responds. . . . There is fantastic rise and fall to their pitch and tones. Sentences or exclamations end loudly and emphatically, and there is also some questioning (rising) intonation. They are using gestures to supplement their talking, much like adults do. Their body distance is even very appropriate for most Americans; not too close, but not too far either.

Already, these twins have a greater command of turn-taking than some adults I’ve encountered, to say nothing of their infectious enthusiasm for, and delight in, simple conversation. Or not so simple. As the great computer intelligence Golem remarked, in Stanisław Lem’s Imaginary Magnitude, “Babble can be highly complex!”

Update:

The blog As a Linguist has two excellent posts on the subject: “This just in…babies make noises!” and “I guess you had to be there“. Here’s an excerpt from the former:

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.

11 Responses to Babbling twins

  1. John Cowan says:

    Of course, turn-taking isn’t universally valued. In Italian and Jewish families, at least in the U.S., it is common to build up a conversational impasto consisting of overlapping contributions, interruptions, interruptions to the interruptions, whole overlapping conversations (often on divergent topics) with or without cross-fertilization between them, and other such apparent violations of Gricean conventions. This can intimidate outsiders or marginal insiders into either silence or (less often) yelling for everyone else to shut up. ObJoke (two actors talking):

    “Hey, at least I’m working: I’m playing a Jewish husband.”

    “Great — but it’s a pity you couldn’t get a speaking part.”

  2. I’m going to have to email my father about this. He works in a research facility where they study babies/toddlers and analyze their language habits (less creepy and more academic than it sounds). If he gets back to me in time, I’ll have a more detailed comment!

  3. Stan says:

    John: That’s a good point about turn-taking. Conventions of manners are relative, after all. If I were party to such a “conversational impasto”, though, I don’t think I would be intimidated so much as encouraged into silence, or I would strike up a peripheral chat with an immediate neighbour, rather than flounder in the fray.

    Ben: Maybe it’s my inner scientist showing, but that doesn’t sound creepy at all. (I’m sure the children are very well cared for.) I would love to hear a specialist’s thoughts on this.

  4. @Stan,

    Sorry for the late comment here, but I heard back from my dad about this video, and this is what he says:

    What this is is called “expressive jargon.” Essentially, these two babies are doing two things kids this age do: they’re imitating one another (very common at this age) and they’re engaged in a turntaking “conversation.” People are disappointed when I say this is not true communication. This is not a secret language that conveys meaning as in a real discussion. However, there are still really important cognitive things going on here. First, imitation requires some pretty sophisticated thinking. How is it a baby knows to raise a leg, when he sees his brother raise a leg? They have to have some sense of self, etc. Also, some point to this jargon as evidence of the brain being wired for communication. Babies seem to babble in an intonation similar to that of the adults in their lives. There are question-sounding babbles, exclamatory babbles, etc. These are still imitations. But they suggest children are integrating the prosodic aspects of their family’s language. (By the way, many believe babies babble in their native language–Turkish babies babble in Turkish, etc. Interestingly, babies in homes where sign language is spoken babble in sign. This is not a joke!) Finally, turntaking is something that emerges early and may be the basis for later communication. When children this age play peek-a-boo or hand things back and forth to a parent they learn that in interactions with humans you act, then wait for your partner to respond, etc. Pretty amazing, when you think about it.

  5. Stan says:

    Thank you very much, Ben, and please pass on my thanks to your dad too. I don’t share people’s disappointment that the twins aren’t having a conversation rich in meaning and secret semantics; if anything, it adds to the marvel that they aren’t. The words will come, and for now they don’t matter: there is plenty else to practise and play with.

    The term “expressive jargon” is strange to me, or half strange, because jargon has strong connotations for me of adult-only communication. I’ve revised my understanding of the word accordingly! The boys’ turn-taking is one of the aspects of their encounter that most beguiled and impressed me. It is all very courteous and generous.

  6. ALiCe__M says:

    Ben,

    I think many scientists agree now to say that babies’babble is determined by their linguistic environement and thus don’t babble in the same way, depending on their nationality (or more precisely, on the nationality of the people around them, but also in the few months before their birth).
    “In a longitudinal comparative study by Bénédicte de Boysson-Bardies (1999) of ten-month-old Spanish, English, Japanese, and Swedish infants, the relative distribution of consonants in their canonical babbling resembled the distribution of these segments in their language. As babies grow, the segmental similarity between their babbling and early words increases.”

    Stan,
    People relish on “secrets” ! that’s partly why this video went viral, but I’m with you on this : the fact that there is no “secret language” shows how marvellous language is.

  7. Stan says:

    That is true, Alice. I love and relish mystery too, but there is enough of it in language and children’s development without adding mysteries that aren’t. Thanks for the quote from the babble study.

  8. John Cowan says:

    The OED2’s entry for jargon is mostly about unintelligible and/or unmeaning noises; even sense 6 (the one you’re talking about) is basically negative until the 20th century. Here’s the OED’s sense-development: for brevity, I’ve omitted the quotations, but included the first date for each sense:

    1. The inarticulate utterance of birds, or a vocal sound resembling it; twittering, chattering.
    This early sense, which became obsolete in the 15th cent., has been revived in modern literature, sometimes with a mixture of sense 5. [1386]

    2. A jingle or assonance of rhymes. rare. [1570]

    3. Unintelligible or meaningless talk or writing; nonsense, gibberish. (Often a term of contempt for something the speaker does not understand.) [1370]

    4. A conventional method of writing or conversing by means of symbols otherwise meaningless; a cipher, or other system of characters or signs having an arbitrary meaning. Obs. [1594]

    5. A barbarous, rude, or debased language or variety of speech; a ‘lingo’; used esp. of a hybrid speech arising from a mixture of languages. Also applied contemptuously to a language by one who does not understand it. [1643]

    6. Applied contemptuously to any mode of speech abounding in unfamiliar terms, or peculiar to a particular set of persons, as the language of scholars or philosophers, the terminology of a science or art, or the cant of a class, sect, trade, or profession. [1651]

    7a. A medley or ‘babel’ of sounds. [1711]

    7b. transf. Any mixture of heterogeneous elements. rare. [1710]

  9. Stan says:

    Thanks very much, John. After Ben’s comment, I consulted the Shorter OED and was surprised by the range and extent of the word’s history. Its chronological development is very interesting.

  10. […] are mama, papa, dada, nana and slight variations thereon — as for example in the well-known video of twin babies repeating dada (and dadadadada, etc.) to each […]

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