Environmental Factors: Motherese, Input and Interaction

Seminar Paper, 2001

13 Pages

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1. Introduction

2. Motherese

3. Language Acquisition Device

4. Input

5. Conclusion

6. Literature

1. Introduction

Language is the main vehicle by which we know about other people's thoughts, and the two must be intimately related. Every time we speak we are revealing something about language, so the facts of language structure are easy to come by; these data hint at a system of extraordinary complexity. Nonetheless, learning a first language is something every child does successfully, in a matter of a few years and without the need for formal lessons. With language so close to the core of what it means to be human, it is not surprising that children's acquisition of language has received so much attention. Anyone with strong views about the human mind would like to show that children's first few steps are steps in the right direction.

In this work I want to analyse where baby talk results from. The answer is obvious: Baby talk comes from the standard adult language: Reduction, clarification, overgeneralization, repetition and so on. But which role do the parents play - how dominant is the babies social environment? Which input influences them in which way and why?

2. Motherese

Catherine Snow1 mentions a basic assumption: “Language Acquisition is the result of a process of interaction between mother and child which begins early in infancy, to which the child makes as important a contribution as the mother, and which is crucial to cognitive and emotional development as well as to language acquisition.” This double sided effect on both mother and child is called “Motherese”.

This phenomena has a special meaning in Language Acquisition, because it not only has a communicative but also a learning function. Both interaction-partners adapt each others language. The mother modifies her linguistic expressions which increases the child’s linguistic competence. The child, on the other hand, changes its expressions so that it can be understood. Through that it increases its language production.

The study of motherese has been named “child-directed speech”2 (CDS) which tends to consist of short, well-formed utterances, to contain fewer false starts or hesitations, and to include fewer complex sentences and subordinate clauses According to Charles Ferguson3 following characteristics indicate motherese:

a) Substitution of difficult sounds with easier ones

→“Tebbe” instead of “Treppe” or “Tette” instead of “Kette”

→ Velar sounds like the German /r/ are simply left out because the baby is not able to produce the /r/ sound at an early age

→ Plosives are substituted by non-plosives - /b/ instead of /p/

→ Child uses /k / instead of /t/ = c apathism

b) Emphasising new information by accentuation

→ “That is Daddy. He is eating a ba-n-ana.”

→ By accentuating a new word the mother tries to tell the baby “listen carefully, this is a new word, which you don’t know as yet.” She tries to put emphasis on the word “banana” so that the baby notices the difference to the other vocabulary which is being used.

c) Exaggeration of the intonation of utterances

→ This example can only be presented in audio because it is of phonological nature

d) Speaking-pitch is on the whole higher

→ This example can only be presented in audio because it is a phonological phenomena

→ Parents try to adapt their voice to the baby’s voice by lifting their speaking pitch4

e) Substitution of first and second person-pronouns by proper names

→ “Mummy is sleepy. And little Charlotte has to go to bed now too!”

→ Parents want to make sure the child knows who is being meant so they use proper names instead of pronouns. Additionally they leave out declination by talking constantly in the third person. That makes it easier for the baby to understand the basic vocabulary before learning the correct declination at an later age.

f) Use of diminutives

→ <The baby is crying> “Charlotte hat ein Weh-wehchen? Kein Wunder, da ist ja auch schon ein Zähnchen zu sehen!“ „Look at that doggie!“

→ This point has no special function for the child. It results from the fact that everything connected to the baby is ‘tiny’ and ‘cute’. The taller, the deeper the voice - the smaller the higher the voice. This associations result from a biological, phonemic background. That is the way adults delimit their world from the babies world.

g) Longer intervals between phrases and sentences

→ Longer intervals have the same meaning as the accentuation in b)

h) Short and grammatically correct sentences

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

→ Children's two-word combinations are highly similar across cultures. Everywhere, children announce when objects appear, disappear, and move about, point out their properties and owners, comment on people doing things and seeing things, reject and request objects and activities, and ask about who, what, and where. These sequences already reflect the language being acquired: in 95% of them, the words are properly ordered5.

i) Repetition of words and clauses

→ Sacks6 calls that the most striking characteristic of maternal speech (especially tagquestions and postcompleters such as “Hmm?”).

According to Sacks the frequency of sequences in which the mother takes both parts are “devices for passing a turn on”: “The Mother is performing a kind of “conversation- repair” by filling in for the baby, taking the turn for it.” One specific attribute for conversation is the dialogue-form. A conversation is only a conversation as long as there is more than one person speaking. The mother wants to repair this “error” by filling in the missing answers herself (which becomes a monologue).

Jean Berko Gleason7, on the other hand, has a different explanation for adult repetition. She thinks that it is unlikely that parents repeat themselves because of their adherence to pedagogical principles. She writes that it is probable that the repetitions are triggered by some immediate behaviour of the child. One obvious factor would be that the child has not yet learned to give the adult the appropriate feedback, the little nods, grunts and other signals which indicate that the message has been received and that it is all right to continue. Berko Gleason has observed the same effect in adult-adult conversation with the exception that adults are much freer to provide paraphrases or semantic expressions when they are talking to each other. A typical example for that kind of conversational breakdown which is being repaired by the mother could be as following:


“What are you doing?” →the mother is referring to the babies action

<<baby makes noise>>

“Are you singing?” → according to Snow the babies action is never seen as random - parents always see the behaviour of babies as intended and intentional reaction

“Yes?” → mother wants to stimulate the baby to an answer or she is performing the typical “conversation-repair”

<<baby burps>>→ nonvoluntary behaviour such as burps are also interpreted as intentional

“That was very nice!” → that is why the mother reacts accordingly by telling the baby that what it had decided to answer was “very nice”

But why do speakers, especially mothers, modify their language? What is the aim of such adaptations?

Roger Brown8 has compared the hypothetical Baby Talk (BT) against the imagined speech of a normal adult speaking to another adult: “Such adults will not say ‘pwetty’ for ‘pretty’ or ‘faw down’ for ‘It fell down’ or ‘Make pee-pee’ for ‘Spend a penny’. They will not use nursery tone or speak very slowly and with exceptional clarity.’

Ferguson9 has found a system to classify all the different processes from a) to i). These processes are of three major types:

- simplifying (as in replacing different consonants with easy ones or eliminating inflections or replacing pronouns with proper names)
- clarifying (as in speaking slowly, clearly and with many repetitions)
- expressive (as in the use of hypocoristic affixes, ‘cute’ euphemisms and ‘nursery tone’ (higher speaking pitch))

→ Making the communication as simple as possible might perhaps result from a desire to communicate. The speaker wants to be understood by the child and has also interest in teaching the language to the child.

→ The process of clarifying has a very similar intention to it.

→ The expressive process, on the other hand, has the expression of affection as a major motive. The speaker might also use expressive utterances, affixes or sounds to capture the child’s attention.

Altogether Ferguson’s three processes can be subsumed into two groups “instructions” (simplifying/clarifying) and “emotions” (expressive).

Jean Berko Gleason10 has found out that it is not just mothers who modify their speech to children in this way: “non-mothers, fathers and older children also produce these typical modifications. In fact, there is no reason not to suppose that basically everyone who talks to children takes into account their special linguistic and cognitive state, at least to some extent.”

Barton and Tomasello11 have critically analysed the classic motherese hypothesis. They have come to the conclusion that “fathers and siblings from Western middleclass families adjust their speech to language-learning infants in many of the same ways as in terms of higher vocal pitch, restricted vocabulary and shortened sentence length - implying that what the child learns from them is similar as well.” This development might also result from the fact that nowadays nearly every woman goes to work and more and more men stay at home to look after the household and the children which was not the case 100 years ago.

But Barton and Tomasello have spotted one basic difference to the communication behaviour of mothers: “Fathers and siblings do not adapt their conversational interactions for young children nearly as much or in as many ways as do mothers from the same families.” Two reasons are given: Either because they are not competent or they are not motivated to do so.

But fathers have another important communicate function according to Berko Gleason12: She has found out that fathers are more challenging communicative partners for young children. They facilitate the development of their children’s conversational skills by forcing them to take into account the point of view of a less knowledgeable, and perhaps accommodating listener. Berko Gleason pointed out, in addition, however, that fathers are usually more knowledgeable and more accommodating, and closer affectedly to the child, than almost all other adults excepting the primary caregiver mother.

- Altogether the father serves as a kind of “linguistic bridge” to the wider community of adult speakers with whom children will eventually need to communicate effectively.

But what happens on that “bridge”? Over years the famous “black box” has tried to be analysed by several linguists. One of them, maybe the most famous, is Noam Chomsky:

3. Language Acquisition Device

A speaker can only learn a language if he extracts the correct communicative rules from the plenty of utterances on which the utterances are based on. According to Noam Chomsky13 the ability of using all of those rules the right way is called “language-competence”. The actual faculty of speech is called “language- performance”

According to Chomsky there are universal principles which determine the different realisations of grammatical regularity in each language. He says that children possess this mechanism by birth - it is innate. What is said to be biologically determined is an universal device which is been canalised through the acquisition of grammar in social life. He named this universal device “LAD” (→ Language Acquisition Device). It allows the child to build up general rules and the grammar competence on its own by making experiences in its social environment.

→ The constructive action of the child is being emphasised

But what is the functionality of the LAD?

The purpose of the LAD is to extract certain rules from the perceived language. It starts with a certain linguistic information, for instance the knowledge that sentences consist of a verbal- and a nominal-phrase. Additionally, the LAD needs plenty of analysing procedures, which are being applied to the sentences. These procedures allow the discovery of transformations, which connect the basic linguistic information with the perceived structure of surface. The LAD has to be flexible enough to make it possible for the child to learn any language.

- The information-memory is not to consist of information which is incompatible with any language. For instance: nonsense-words like “gruselett”, “spanz” or “twamp” - they woould lead to confusion within the child’s linguistic concept

According to the LAD-concept by Chomsky14, every child talks by a certain rule on each of its developmental stages - but by the rules of its own “infant grammar” and not by the rules of adult grammar. After all, the linguistic development takes place relatively independent from the development of sense. Of course, the child also receives feedback from his environment.

The linguistic experience is analysed and is re-combined. That changes the state of the organism so that it can handle new kinds of linguistic input. It can be compared to a kind of discovery-procedure which develops to a specific procedure by approaching the universal grammar step by step.

→ According to Chomsky language is an interaction between innate features and the child’s linguistic environment (which is the source of the material needed for the analysis) that finally leads to the acquisition of universal grammar.

4. Input

To understand how children learn language, we have to know what aspects of language (from their parents or peers) they have access to. Children clearly need some kind of linguistic input to acquire a language. There have been occasional cases in history where abandoned children have somehow survived in forests, such as Victor, the Wild Boy of Aveyron (subject of a film by Francois Truffaut). Occasionally other modern children have grown up wild because depraved parents have raised them silently in dark rooms and attics; the chapter by Newport and Gleitman15 discuss some of those cases. The outcome is always the same: the children, when found, are mute. Whatever innate grammatical abilities there are, they are too schematic to generate concrete speech, words, and grammatical constructions on their own.

According to Macnamara16 and other linguists the language of parents is essential for the early language development because they supply linguistic information together with non-linguistic input (gestures, mimic, sounds, actions etc.). The auditory input is far too complex and irregular for a child to learn syntactic rules. Baby-Talk is especially created to fit the child’s needs. The mother’s expansions (see chapter 2) provide appropriate assistance.

Macnamara’s theory

→ “Because the child is in the dynamic middle of speaker and receiver it is able to understand what the (adult) speaker means. As a result of that the child can combine what the speaker is saying.”

- Consequently the child does not learn the meaning of a word but how an existing meaning, a concept or and idea is to be denominated.

Leonard Bloomfield has a slightly different concept:

“Language is a continuation of action in other ways.”

According to Bloomfield17 the simple S → R-sequence, the “speechless reaction”, proceeds in a person (→ black box). That turns into a linguistic reaction with speech, which connects two people with each other if the direct action of the person (R) is replaced by a linguistic action which makes the other person react. This reaction is “mediated by speech”, as Bloomfield calls it.

In his opinion, the act of speech is the connecting factor between two practical occurrences. Consequently the elocutionary act allows the division of previous connected features:

→ The language evolves from the total occurrence.

Bloomfield18 summarises his theory as follows: “The meaning of a word is the situation in which the speaker expresses it in and the response which it causes in the auditor.”

- The child does not understand what a word means but what the (adult) speaker means.

- The factor of intention

The anchorage of language-learning lies consequently in the detection of the speaker’s intention. According to Schlesinger19 the virtual task of language acquisition is to learn the rules according to which the structure of intention is transformed into the linguistic structure of surface. Because the main frame of the situation is already clear to the child it is able to decode the linguistic wording by the help of the existent comprehension.

5. Conclusion

Not only have we learnt about the output of language acquisition, we learnt a fair amount about the input to it, namely, parent's speech to their children. So even if language acquisition, like all cognitive processes, is essentially a "black box," we know enough about its input and output to be able to make precise guesses about its contents. Undoubtedly, mothers play the major role in the child’s first years. They copy each other and thereby adapt each other’s language which has both positive and negative consequences: The mother tends to not correct the babies wrong sentence but take over the defective utterance with simply adding the missing word or phrase. On the other hand the child takes over a lot from the mother: Gestures and mimes in connection with utterances build the fundament of the child’s linguistic concept which is to be complemented by the years.

The topic of language acquisition implicates the most profound questions about our understanding of the human mind, and its subject matter, the speech of children, is endlessly fascinating. But the attempt to understand it scientifically is guaranteed to bring on a certain degree of frustration.


1 „Mother’s speech research: from input to interaction“ in „Talking to children“, p. 31 (Cambridge: 1977)

2 “The language of primary caregivers”, Julian Pine, in “Input and interaction in language acquisition”, p. 15 (Cambridge: 1994)

3 “Baby talk as a simplified register”, p.222 f. in “Talking to children” (Cambridge:1977)

5 Brown, “Development of a first language” (1973) in “Child Language”, Franklin/Barten (Ed.), p. 77 (New York 1988)

6 Sacks et al. (1974), “A simplest systematics for the organisation of turn-taking for conversation.”, p. 696-735

7 Jean Berko Gleason, “Talking to children: some notes on feedback” in “Talking to children”, p. 200f (Cambridge: 1977)

8 “Introduction“ in “Talking to children“, p. 3 (Cambridge: 1977)

9 „Introduction“ in „Talking to children“, p. 4 (Cambridge: 1977)

10 „Talking to children: some notes on feedback” in “Talking to children”, , p. 204 (Cambridge: 1977)

11 “The rest of the family: the role of fathers and siblings in early language development“ in “Input and interaction in language development“, Gallaway/Richards, p. 110 (Cambridge: 1994)

12 Berko Gleason (1975) in “The Rest of the family” in “Input and interaction in language acquisition”, p. 111 (Cambridge: 1994)

13 “Aspects of the theory of syntax”, Noam Chomsky, p. 55 (Cambridge: 1965)

14 “Aspects of the theory of syntax”, Noam Chomsky, (Cambridge: 1965)

15 Newport, E., Gleitman, H. & Gleitman, E. (1977) Mother I'd rather do it myself: Some effects and non-effects of maternal speech style. In C. E. Snow and C. A. Ferguson (eds.), Talking to Children: Language Input and Acquisition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

16 “Cognitive basis of language learning in infants”, J. Macnamara, in “Psychology Review”, 79, p. 1-13 (1972)

17 “Language”, Leonard Bloomfield, p.1ff (London: 1967)

18 “Language”, Leonard Bloomfield, p. 47 (London: 1967)

19 “Production of utterances and language acquisition”, I. Schlesinger,p. 23ff, in “The ontogenesis of grammar”, D. Slobin (Ed.), (New York: 1971)

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Environmental Factors: Motherese, Input and Interaction
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Natalie Kayani (Author), 2001, Environmental Factors: Motherese, Input and Interaction, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/103541


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