How caregivers combine tactile and linguistic cues

Blog post based on an article in Journal of Child Language, written by Rana Abu-Zhaya

Studies have shown that both caregiver touch and speech play an important role in the early development of infants. Research examining early caregiver-infant interactions showed that touch is prominently present and is a key component of those interactions.

Among other significant effects, touch plays a role in directing infants’ attention and regulating their arousal. On the other hand, studies that have examined speech that is directed to infants showed that adults modify their speech when interacting with young infants. These modifications result in what researchers call “infant-directed speech”, which has been shown to aid in language learning. However, despite the common use of speech and touch in early interactions, very little is known about how they are naturally combined during interactions with infants.

In a study designed to specifically examine how touch and speech are combined and used in early interactions, mothers were asked to read to their 5-month-old infants a book about body-parts and one about animals. In order to keep the interactions as naturalistic as possible, mothers were asked to read the books to their infants the way they would normally do at home. The interactions were videotaped and audio-recorded; analyses were performed on the video stream separately from the audio stream.

The results of the study revealed some interesting features of mother-infant interactions. First, the study confirmed the finding from previous research that touch is a common component of early interactions and is produced naturally by caregivers without specific elicitation. More importantly, the study showed that touch+speech events are different from touch alone or speech alone events. Specifically, touches that were produced with speech were longer in their duration than touch alone events. Further, an examination of a specific set of words, i.e. body-part words and animal names, revealed that when words were accompanied by touch, they were produced with a higher average pitch than words that were spoken without any touches. Hence, when touch and speech are produced together creating multimodal events, they have more exaggerated features than when each is produced separately.

Further, the results suggest that maternal touches tend to be well aligned with their speech and that mothers tend to touch their infants in locations that are congruent with names of body parts they are producing while touching their infant.

The significance of these findings lies in the fact that infants are presented with language in a rich multimodal context and understanding the way different cues are naturally combined with speech can help researchers better characterize the early input that infants receive. The better the knowledge researchers have on how language is presented to infants, and how various cues (such as touch) are used and weighted differently throughout development, the better is their ability to aid infants and children who are struggling in learning language.

Access ‘Multimodal infant-directed communication: how caregivers combine tactile and linguistic cues‘ for free through 31st October.

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