Campus / News / Student Research / January 30, 2013

Senior studies baby babbling

Senior Megan Beney talks about her Honors project, which looks at the musical qualities of infant-directed speech. (Michelle Orr/TKS)

Senior Megan Beney talks about her Honors project, which looks at the musical qualities of infant-directed speech. (Michelle Orr/TKS)

For senior Megan Beney, doing Honors is an opportunity to study firsthand a topic that has fascinated her since her freshman year. Beney is examining the musical qualities of infant-directed speech — the cooing and simplifying of words commonly referred to as baby talk.

The Knox Student: Describe your project in a nutshell.
Megan Beney: I’m interested in the correlation of music and language as they relate to human sound communication and the evolution of such. Infant-directed speech may play an important part in this conversation, given that humans may have first made the connection between sound and symbolic thought through their interactions with their children. That’s the gist of it.

TKS: How are you investigating infant-directed speech?
MB: I’ve conducted several interviews with parents and children under one year of age. I am using that audio information of the parents speaking to their children and then to a peer to compare the acoustic qualities, at least to the extent of infant-directed speech vs. peer-directed speech. I am looking for intentionality in infant-directed speech and how it musically manifests itself.

I’ll listen for points in my data that sound relevant, and then I intend to send that information back to the parents themselves … in order to see whether what I think is intentionality is truly intentionality from the perspective of the parents. Additionally, I’ll get a group of students, both musically and not musically trained, in order to see whether they hear the intentionality as well just as English-speakers.

If I can continue on that strand without running out of time, because heaven knows that Honors is very time-restricted, I want to get a third group of judges that will listen for the musical characteristics of the sound clips that I choose, so whether a phrase is rising or falling or whether it’s staccato or legato and so on, [and] see if we can make anything of it.

TKS: What led you to pursue this line of research?
MB: It’s been a long story in the making. It’s one that actually goes back to freshman year, because I took a course in human origins, and in the last week or two of the class, we started talking about the emergence of language, and that really struck a chord with me. My coursework has built upon this. … I also went to India the fall of my junior year, and I was essentially able to do a pilot study there with mothers and their infants. So really, my interest in music and language has snowballed into a very specific route with infant-directed speech, if snowballing can narrow your focus.

TKS: What has been the most rewarding part of your project?
MB: The research experience is a big part of it: just learning how to organize myself and to organize other people so that we can all work together to get a single goal to happen. And I’ve really enjoyed working with the people whom I’ve interviewed. It’s been rewarding to see exactly how willing people are to help researchers on the one hand, but also I enjoy seeing my research in action because infant-directed speech isn’t a phenomenon that happens on paper. It’s something that’s lived, and that’s very exciting.

TKS: What advice do you have for students considering doing Honors?
MB: Plan ahead and have a concrete idea of what you would like to do, but not so concrete that it’s not malleable. Be passionate about your subject, because the passion will get you through the parts that are not so exciting or the parts that are challenging.

Anna Meier

Tags:  honors profile infant-directed speech megan beney

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