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Rethinking the Phonetics of Baby-talk: Differences Across Canada and Vanuatu in the Articulation of Mothers' Speech to Infants

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Infant-directed speech (IDS) is phonetically distinct from adult-directed speech (ADS): It is typically considered to have special prosody—like higher pitch and slower speaking rates—as well as unique speech sound properties, for example, more breathy, hyperarticulated, and/or variable consonant and vowel articulation. These phonetic features are widely observed in the IDS of caregivers from urbanized contexts who speak a handful of very well-researched languages. Yet studies with more diverse socio-cultural and linguistic samples show that this "typical" IDS prosody is not consistently observed across cultures. We extended cross-cultural work by examining IDS speech segment articulation, which—like prosody—is also thought to be a characteristic phonetic feature of IDS that might aid speech and language development. Here we asked whether IDS vowels have different articulatory features compared to ADS vowels in two distinct linguistic and socio-cultural contexts: urban English-speaking Canadian mothers, and rural Lenakel- and Southwest Tanna-speaking ni-Vanuatu mothers (n = 57, 20–46 years of age). Replicating prior work, Canadian mothers had more variable vowels in IDS compared to ADS, but also did not show clear register differences for breathiness or hyperarticulation. Vowels spoken by ni-Vanuatu mothers showed very distinct articulatory tendencies, using less variable (and less breathy) IDS vowels. Along with other work showing diversity in IDS phonetics across populations, this paper suggests that any understanding of how IDS might aid speech and language development are best examined through a culturally- and linguistically-specific lens.
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