Monday, April 18, 2011

Parents' Bumblings and Stumblings, Uh, Help Kids to Speak, Study Shows

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children learning language

Sentences with stumblings and pauses are easier for children to follow. Credit: Getty Images

Parents who, uh, you know, kind of like, that is to say, stumble over their words may actually be, sort of, teaching their children how to speak.

So, don't worry, you inarticulate clod. You are doing good.

Actually, you are doing well. But researchers at the University of Rochester say there is little cause to nitpick. Sentences littered with stumblings, bumblings and pauses are actually easier for children to follow than those executed with flawless elocution.

Ha! Take that, Professor Higgins!

You remember Henry Higgins, the anal-retentive professor of phonetics from "My Fair Lady." He asks the musical question, "Why can't the English teach their children how to speak?"

According to the Independent in London, it could be because they talk too much like Higgins.

For example, the newspaper reports, slightly halting, mangled speech might clue babies in that a particularly hard new vocabulary word is on its way.

Children have a lot of new words to learn, the Independent reports, so they need time to work out what they mean. Hesitations can give them that time.

"The more predictions (a toddler) can make about what is being communicated, the more efficiently he or she can understand it," Richard Aslin, professor of brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester and one of the authors of the study, tells the Independent.

Researchers studied three groups of children from 18 to 30 months of age, as they sat on their parents' knees watching a pair of images on a screen. One of the images was of a familiar object (a ball or book) and one was of an unfamiliar one with a made-up name (such as a "dax" or "gorp").

A recorded voice talked about the objects. When the voice stumbled, the children were 70 percent more likely to look at the made-up image than the familiar one.

"We're not advocating that parents add disfluencies to their speech, but I think it's nice for them to know that using these verbal pauses are OK," Celeste Kidd, the study's lead author, tells the newspaper. "The 'uhs' and 'ums' are informative."

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