Who Directs Infant-Directed Speech? The Unconscious Cunning of the Newborn, the Linguistic Environment, and Biological Bases

Guest Speaker:
Prof Denis Burnham (MARCS Institute for Brain, Behaviour and Development, Western Sydney University and Visiting Professor, 2016-2017, Linguistics and Multilingual Studies, Nanyang Technological Unive
Dr Carmel Houston-Price (School of Psychology, University of Reading Malaysia)
Subject Area:
Date & Time:
Wed, 11. January 2017, 13:00 h - 14:00 h
N3.24, University of Reading Malaysia - EduCity@Iskandar​

BabyTalk, or infant-directed speech (IDS) as researchers call it, is that form of speech we use, quite possibly unconsciously, when talking to babies. Compared to adult-directed speech, IDS has more repetitions, shorter utterances, higher pitch and greater pitch variation, heightened emotional content, and hyperarticulated vowels – thought to provide infants with didactic information about their language. Indeed, despite some popular myths, evidence suggests that IDS facilitates infants’ social, emotional, cognitive and linguistic development. In this presentation, the pitch, emotional and didactic elements in IDS by mothers, fathers and even older siblings will be set out via acoustic, affective and phonetic analyses, and IDS will also be compared along these three dimensions with other special speech registers – to pets, foreigners, lovers, and computer avatars. In addition, the nature of IDS to hearing-impaired infants and infants at risk of dyslexia will be explicated, and this will lead into a consideration of the dynamics of IDS – who and what drives IDS. The presentation will finish by considering the next phases of IDS research aimed at determining its neural underpinnings, and teasing out the critical interactional components of IDS in the parent-child microcosm.


During PhD and a junior faculty position at Monash U (1975-1981), then later at the U of NSW (1981-1999), Burnham rode the exciting new wave of infant visual perception research in the 70s and then was one of the first 80s Australian punks to jump onto the equally, if not more, exciting wave of infant speech perception.

From the mid-80s he embraced cross-disciplinary research with experimental phoneticians and speech scientists, and in the late 80s added research across those mini-laboratories, called languages, that so conveniently provide systematic variation of the auditory input.

After his appointment as Foundation Director of MARCS Institute for Brain, Behaviour and Development at Western Sydney U in 1999, his research focus continued to develop and expand in: infant speech perception; auditory-visual speech perception; captions for the hearing impaired; tone languages – lexical tone perception, tone perception with cochlear implants, and speech-music interactions; human-machine interaction; speech corpus studies; the role of infants' perceptual experience and expertise in literacy development; and special speech registers, including infant-, pet-, foreigner-, computer-, and lover-directed speech.

So too have his collaborations developed and expanded – with phoneticians, linguists, engineers, clinicians, computer scientists, music cognition researchers, creative artists, and neuroscientists, with the result of many emergent issues, paradigms, findings, and friendships. He is currently Visiting Professor in Linguistics and Multilingual Studies at Nanyang Technological U, forging further collaborations.

  • Admission is free.​
  • Tea break will be served at 2:00 pm.
  • UoRM staff RSVP by responding to the internal event invitation.
  • All are welcome, RSVP by 6 January 2017.

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