Universal Babbling
Listen to your baby as he burbles in his crib, or try to remember her coos and first little sounds. Researchers believe that these simple syllables may be an important tool in understanding the development of spoken language, and a key in helping children overcome speech delay.

Barbara Davis, a professor of communication sciences and disorders, and Peter MacNeilage, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, have found that baby-babbling patterns are common across many languages around the world. Early vocal patterns echo what speech may have been like in the earliest languages.

Davis analyzed the sounds of infants from ages 6 months to 18 months. “Once a month for three years, we’d visit the child’s home and record the babbling noises they made when interacting with their parents,” she explains. “The recorded sounds were then transcribed into phonetic symbols and analyzed by computer.”

Four sequences of sound patterns – different consonant-vowel combinations, such as “mama,” “dada,” “gaga” and “mad” – were identified, each using simple body mechanics, such as opening and closing the mouth and movement of the tongue. Davis found babies using all four sequences in Sweden, Portugal, Korea, Japan, France, Holland, North Africa and Ecuador.

She suggests that the first ancestral speakers used basic mechanical patterns to form early spoken words. The research could help parents identify speech delays in their children much earlier on.

“Learning to speak is one of the most complicated physical actions humans can perform,” says Davis.

“It requires the coordination of more than 70 muscles and many different body parts. Over time, we hope to gain a deeper understanding of how infants typically acquire speech so that we can diagnose speech problems as early as possible and treat children more effectively.”

– Georgia Orcutt