Infant’s faces mirror the rhythms and emotions of baby talk.
All images courtesy of Colwyn Trevarthen
No need to switch on the Mozart. Simply engaging in baby talk might be the best way to raise an artistic child, say University of Alberta English professor David Miall and his colleague Ellen Dissanayake. Miall developed a computer program that analyzes structural, metrical, and phonetic variations in literary works. On a whim, he fed a tape of a mother speaking to her infant into the machine and was floored by the result. “Baby talk is incredibly systematic and rhythmical—the patterns are exaggerated examples of those in poetry, song lyrics, and great literature,” he says. Miall suggests that infants in the first weeks of life already respond to the inflections of baby talk, which helps a mother focus her child’s attention and communicate emotional states. Baby talk then provides an unconscious aesthetic template after children have mastered verbal communication. “It could well be the reason we have emotional responses to temporal art, such as literature and music,” Miall says. If so, poetry and art may be interpreted as forms of social bonding that linger long after the initial mother-infant attachment is outgrown.