The science behind babbling babies

by Tripp Underwood on March 31, 2011


By now I’m sure you’ve seen this adorable video of twin babies “talking” to each other. The animated way these little guys go back forth is cute, but what’s happening developmentally for these two? Is it normal for toddlers to be this animated when pretending to talk? Are they purposely changing their inflection and tone, or is that coincidence? To learn more I spoke with Hope Dickinson, MS, CCC-SLP, coordinator of the Speech-Language Pathology Services at Children’s Hospital Boston at Waltham.

Aside from being amazingly cute, what’s going on with these “talking” twins? These two are babbling, specifically they’re demonstrating a behavior known as “reduplicated babbling,” because the sounds used are repeated, which you can hear in their use of “da-da-da.” In a more informal way, I guess I would describe it as turn-taking with babbling, or conversational babbling.

Play talk is a healthy way for kids to develop language skills

As a speech pathologist, what do you take away from this video? It’s fun because these two are demonstrating great mimicking of multiple aspects of conversation. It really demonstrates how very young children communicate and know how a conversation works, even before they have the words to use. They will eventually begin to replace the babbling strings with words. If you listen closely, you’ll even hear a couple of words: One says “mama” when looking at the camera, and one or both say “up” more than once when picking up a foot.

One thing they are using wonderfully is turn taking, as in first one “talks” and then pauses and the other responds. They are also imitating the various intonations we use in conversation and speaking. There is fantastic rise and fall to their pitch and tones. Sentences or exclamations end loudly and emphatically, and there is also some questioning (rising) intonation. They are using gestures to supplement their talking, much like adults do. Their body distance is even very appropriate for most Americans; not too close, but not too far either.

Is it normal for babbling to be so animated? These kids really seem like they’re hamming it up for the camera. It’s actually pretty common for babbling to be so lively. Some children will really get into the volume and animation, throwing their hands around for emphasis, shaking or wagging their finger to drive home a point.

I noticed one child was laughing a lot, clearly in reaction to what the other twin was “saying.” Is that common? Yes, it’s probably a reaction to the intonation and gestures, and maybe also pure joy that the one twin “understands” and imitates the other so well. You will also see babbling children who pout or yell, depending on the tone of their “conversation.” You might see more animation from these two because they are twins. Twins have constant access to an imitation partner who is at the same developmental level, so they have a built-in practice partner.

Hope Dickinson, MS, CCC-SLP

Plenty of my readers have babbling babies, but twins are somewhat of a rarity. How can parents of non-twins interact with their children in a way that engages them and develops their budding conversation skills? I would wholeheartedly encourage these types of exchanges with toddlers. If you don’t have twins, you should “play” talk with your child. Imitate his or her sounds and see if you can get a back-and-forth exchange going. Maybe use a pair of toy telephones and have a conversation that way. Parents can also use real words at times, as though they are interpreting what the baby has said based on the setting or activity. “Oh, I see. Yes, that’s a big dog. He’s a noisy doggie, isn’t he?” Use high animation, sound effects and gestures to keep your child interested. Other than that, the “usual” staples of good language stimulation are simply: Talk to your child throughout the day and as much as possible, try narrating what he’s doing and seeing, what you’re doing and seeing, and what is going on around you.

If parents have children who aren’t babbling, should they be concerned about language delay problems? There’s a wide, varied range of language delays so it’s hard to say for sure, but if a baby is not babbling by 8-10 months or so, as in there’s no consonants or the child is quiet overall, it might be reason to talk with a pediatrician. If by 12- 14 months the child is babbling a lot but not yet making words it may also be a concern. Also, it’s important to note that any time there is a loss of a previously acquired skill it can be a red flag that something may be wrong.

What should concerned parents do? Parents need to remember that every child develops at his or her own rate, but I always tell people, an evaluation by a speech language pathologist can’t hurt if they’re worried. One of the first things we recommend is a complete audiological evaluation (with a pediatric audiologist) because even slight or mild hearing loss can be an issue for speech-language development. Parents should talk to their pediatrician, but should always use their “gut” or parental instincts if they feel something is not right. For children under 3, some may qualify to receive speech-language therapy through their local Early Intervention Program.

Think you know what these twins are carrying on about? Prove it! Head over the Children’s Facebook page and post your best video caption or speech translation in the comment section and we’ll highlight our favorites.

1 comment

  • James Fariello

    The boys are communicating in reverse speech and fighting over the sock near the feet of the boy to the right of the video, http://youtu.be/5jLqzr3_co0 here is a reverse of the video with the communications.

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