Parents unconsciously develop a precise method for speaking to their toddlers

PITTSBURGH — As infants grow into toddlers, parents unconsciously develop a specific method in the way they speak to their children that builds their vocabulary and syntax, new research shows. Scientists believe this discovery in toddlers’ language learning process holds the key to boosting artificial intelligence (AI). That’s because they pick up languages much quicker than teenagers and grown-ups.

Harnessing this ability could open the door to better machine learning tools. The idea was first proposed by World War II codebreaking hero Alan Turing more than seven decades ago.

Now psychologists have discovered the phenomenon can be explained by the way parents talk to their little ones. They have an extremely precise idea of their children’s knowledge and use it to adjust how they speak. “Parents talk to children differently than to other adults in a lot of ways. For example, by simplifying their speech, reduplicating words, and stretching out vowel sounds,” says study lead author Dr. Daniel Yurovsky of Carnegie Mellon University in a statement. “This stuff helps young kids get a toehold into language. But we didn’t know parents change the way they talk as [their] children are acquiring language, giving them input that is ‘just right’ for learning the next thing.”

The results have implications for experts working in the field of AI, which has been hailed a “defining future technology,” enabling computers to reason, learn, plan and create. Future applications range from self-driving cars to improvements in smartphones, security, health, manufacturing, and farming.

In 1950, computer pioneer Turing wrote: “Instead of trying to produce a program to simulate the adult mind, why not rather try to produce one which simulates the child’s?” Neural networks mimicking the human brain may work more efficiently by getting them to process information like children under two, said Dr. Yurovsky.

The study shows that adults tend to address toddlers slowly and at a higher pitch. They also use more exaggerated enunciation, repetition, and simplified language structure and the communication is peppered with questions to gauge the child’s comprehension. The structure and complexity of sentences increase simultaneously with their language fluency. Dr. Yurovsky likens it to the progression a student follows when learning maths.

“When you go to school, you start with algebra and then take plane geometry before moving onto calculus,” Dr. Yurovsky explains. “People talk to kids using the same kind of structure without thinking about it. They are tracking how much their child knows about language and modifying how they speak so that children understand them.”

In the study, Dr. Yurovsky’s team developed a game where parents helped children aged 15 to 23 months pick a specific animal from a set of three. Half of the animals were familiar animals, such as cats or cows, the other half less so, such as peacocks or leopards. The 41 parent-child pairs played in a naturalistic laboratory setting as variations in how parents talked about the creatures were measured.

The study consisted of 36 experimental trials where each animal appeared as a target at least twice in the game.

“Parents have an incredibly precise knowledge of their child’s language because they have witnessed them grow and learn,” Dr. Yurovsky said. “These results show parents leverage their knowledge of their children’s language development to fine-tune the linguistic information they provide.”

The parents used a number of techniques to convey the unfamiliar animal to the child, usually adding easy descriptions. “This approach lets us confirm experimentally ideas that we have developed based on observations of how children and parents engage in the home,” said Dr. Yurovsky. “We found that parents used what they already knew about their children’s language knowledge before the study. But if they found out their child didn’t actually know ‘leopard,’ for example, they changed the way they talked about that animal the next time around.”

Findings are published in the journal Psychological Science.

SWNS writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.

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