Why Language Specific Infant Wailing?

This is a comment on a blog commenting on a story.

Recent studies have been showing that infant brains are undergoing the phonological acquisition process as soon as they are born (and likely before). Studies have shown that babbling (ca 7 months) is influenced by their caregiver’s languages Bénédicte de Boysson-Bardies, e.g. B de Boysson-Bardies, L Sagart, C Durand (1984) and that babies recognize and prefer to focus on people speaking the native language of their caregivers.

The latest study is one announcing that babies change their pitch placement according to linguistic environment. To be fair, Mark Liberman of Language Log has some methodological issues, but I will assume for argument’s sake that the language-specific wailing hypothesis is correct.

My actual concern is a comment made by blogger Nicolas Cladière (who is NOT the author of the original study). And that comment is:

To me, this suggests an interesting evolutionary hypothesis. If newborns are able to produce language-specific cries from their very first day, it could be because the production of such cries increases the likelihood that mothers and other caregivers take good care of the newborn. Note that under this hypothesis, the fact that newborns’ cry melodies are similar to their caregivers’ tongue melody is not necessarily related to the fact that they are learning a language. We could imagine two perfectly independent systems. On the one hand a baby crying system tuned to the caregivers’ tongue prosody to elicit attention and on the other hand a baby language production system maturing more slowly. Of course, the alternative hypothesis is that when they are born, newborns’ language systems have already matured to the point where sound production is influenced by previous exposure to their linguistic stimuli. And this may, or may not, help elicit response by caregivers.

It IS an interesting hypothesis, but one I don’t find plausible. For one thing, I would suspect that the vast majority of mothers are raising their children in the context of a larger community in which other mothers and children are speaking the same language. That is most children in State College PA are being raised in an American English community, while those in a small town in Japan will be raised in a Japanese community. What you have are multiple mothers all speaking the same language.

If you are raising a child in an environment where everyone is speaking the same language, then all the infants will presumably be crying in the same language. Mothers who are distinguishing their own infant cries from in this environment must rely on some other mechanism independent of language.

Another objection I have is how difficult it would be to ignore a non-native infant cry. Again, I suspect that it’s hard to ignore a wailing infant in general. Infants have loudness and target pitches on their side. Assuming an evolutionary approach, one could argue that there is a very distinct advantage for a cry to draw the attention of any adult even if the caregiver (or anyone else in the tribe) is not available. If there is a language specific effect, I think it would be more subtle than not.

So…if we do have language specific cries from an infant, what would it mean? It could mean that a child is doing some phonological practice on the side. The process itself may have no direct evolutionary advantage, it it leads to an outcome that has a huge advantage – being able to speak a language with native speaker proficiency.

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