I’m willing to bet you’ve seen this video of a pair of twin brothers chatting each other up in their kitchen. Granted, they’re both just repeating the same syllable, but one of them has the gossip, and you can’t deny that there’s some kind of communication going on here.
And there’s “Baby Geniuses,” the movie I watched approximately once a day for a year of my life because I thought it was just the cutest. In the movie, a dad is committed to cracking the code of baby language, convinced that his infant son and others all have a secret language that they just grow out of eventually. Spoiler alert: They did.
As much as it’d be awesome were this true, there isn’t a ton of evidence that proves that babbling babies do indeed understand each other prior to learning to actually speak. The closest we’ve come to determining communication between infants was a study out of Charles Sturt University in 2012 that decided that even if babies aren’t verbally communicating, their interactions show that they’re more aware than not.
Researchers found that babies play jokes on each other, like offering a toy just to pull it back again or swapping bottles around on a high chair to try and confuse each other. They also displayed legitimate social skills, like inviting each other into the group and recognizing when a friend was scared of something and offering comfort.
Babies’ ability to pinpoint emotions was recently given more backing when. In 2017, researchers found that babies can identify their peers’ moods and respond accordingly. The subjected infants were showed both images and audio of happy and sad babies and were able to match the sound to the mood -- they determined this by how long the babies gazed at the correct image.
In this sense, babies may not know what we’re saying when they’re too young, but they can tell what kind of mood you’re conveying depending on how you speak.
Does this prove that kids can understand each others’ babble? No, but they’re not completely in the dark, either.
A study from the Acoustical Society of America last year, for example, found that infants prefer hearing kids their own age babble over adults’ voices. Babies as young as 5 months old showed more positive emotion and held a longer attention span when listening to simulated baby babble as opposed to simulated adult voices saying the same vowels. On average, they paid attention to the baby sounds for 40 percent longer.
And, in a way, this promotes babies to learn how to verbalize themselves. By listening to infant sounds, they start to recognize that they can make those noises themselves. So, you know how you tend to talk to kids in a baby voice? That’s actually benefiting them more than you’d think.
“Perhaps, when we use a high, infant-like voice pitch to speak to our babies, we are actually preparing them to perceive their own voice,” explained Professor Linda Polka, senior author of the study.
They may not be on the level of Sly in "Baby Geniuses," but you never know - chat those kids up!