UVic Torch -- Autumn 2007
Spring 2008,
Volume 29, Number 1

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By MARK VARDY, MA ’07
Photography by ELEONORA GHIOLDI/CORBIS PHOTO


What infants have to say about language development.

Burbling and gurgling infant voices fill the Department of Linguistics lab in Clearihue D-wing. The babble is from video clips of Canadian, Chinese and Moroccan babies who sound to the untrained ear, well, like a bunch of babies.
“Listen to all the manners,” says Prof. John Esling, drawing attention to a baby whose family speaks Bai, a Tibeto-Burman language.

“Notice what these infants are doing. They’re not just going ‘ba-ba-ba’, they’re going ‘rrrrmmm ba-ba-ba, rrrrmmm ba-ba-ba’, like a little starter motor. That’s the pharyngeal articulator,” says Esling, who possesses the astonishing capacity to distinguish and replicate many of the several hundred discrete sounds that form the world’s languages.

Another video clip shows a baby sitting on a living room floor waving his arms at a dog and making a guttural sound. “That infant’s doing pharyngeals as well. It’s an English infant. So basically the kid is talking to the dog in pharyngeal-ese.”

The discipline of phonetics traditionally concentrated on sounds formed in the front of the mouth, primarily because that’s where most of the sounds used in English are made. But Esling has found that the first sounds babies produce—sounds which have meaning in many languages including Bai and Arabic—are formed further back in the throat, where the pharyngeal articulator is located. “The larynx does a lot more than people thought it was doing before we started analyzing all these different languages.”

The research began when linguists discovered that the International Phonetic Alphabet did not fully account for sounds essential to the language of the Nuu-chah-nulth people of Vancouver Island’s west coast. Listening to Nuu-chah-nulth, Esling realized other languages contain similar sounds, also produced by infants.

With colleagues and a team of graduate and undergraduate students, he compiled video clips of infants raised in different languages. All of the babies produced sounds from the larynx, but those sounds tapered off in English infants as they aged.

“In the second half of their first year, babies start to put sounds together that predominate in their own language. So that means, in Arabic, you would expect they would be using more sounds from the pharynx (the upper part of the larynx). And indeed they do, in fact, vocalize with more pharyngeal sounds. And the Tibeto-Burman infants in China are vocalizing with even more pharyngeal sounds during that second part of the first year.”

It’s not just that the babies are making particular sounds—Esling’s research with the Nuu-chah-nulth also documented the physical mechanisms involved in making those sounds. That breakthrough, combined with the research on how babies respond to the sounds in the languages they hear, provides a whole new way of understanding what infants are up to with all of that burbling and gurgling.

“We have evidence now that no one had before, until we analyzed it from the point of view of complicated languages. It leads to a completely new theoretical model of how sounds are combined between different parts of the vocal tract.”

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