Strange but True: 'Parentese' helps infants master language


Q: What language do most of us first learn as infants, on our way to becoming fully communicative adults?

A: It could be any of the world's 7,000 languages but most of us get a social start by learning "parentese" from Mom and Dad, says early childhood learning specialist Patricia Kuhl in "Scientific American" magazine. It's exaggerated talk, you might say, using high pitch, slower tempo and exaggerated intonation. When given a choice of various audio clips, infants chose these over other recordings by women speaking to other adults. "The high pitched tone seems to act as an acoustic hook for infants that captures and holds their attention."

Though once criticized as counterproductive, Kuhl's studies have shown that parentese most likely helps infants commit these sounds to memory. In fact, one year later "these infants had learned more than twice the number of words as those whose parents did not use the baby vernacular as frequently."

As Kuhl emphasizes, "learning for the infant brain is not a passive process. Social interaction is an essential prerequisite for mastering a language."

Q: You and your sweetheart must be apart. Sigh! What high-tech gadget might you use to keep her close to you?

A: Just watching the rhythmic movements of your lover's breath up and down and in and out can be a sort of romantic reassurance to you. "A high-tech photo frame billows its surface in time with the breaths of the person pictured, picking up their breathing pattern from a sensor-studded belt they wear," reports "New Scientist" magazine. Developed by Jina Kim and colleagues at the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology in Daejeon, South Korea, this gadget has received positive feedback from eight couples who tried it. So in your absence, tell your sweetheart, "Every breath you take, I'll be watching you."

Q: Are you ready for the SymmyS achievement awards ceremony? To participate, what do you need to excel in? Clue: Check out the title of the ceremony.

A: Did you notice that SymmyS is a "palindrome," or a word or sentence that reads the same backward and forward, letter for letter, like "sex at noon taxes," says Jeff Rubin in "Mental Floss" magazine. One palindrome competition drew 600 spectators who signalled their approval or disdain by holding up signs that palindromically read "wow" or "huh." And the "wow" winner: "Doc, note: I dissent. A fast never prevents a fatness. I diet on cod."

Master palindromist Mark Saltveit has been editing "The Palindromist" magazine for about 15 years, noting that palindromes "go back to 300 BCE in the Hellenistic era, when Sotakes the Obscene invented them in the shadow of the great Library of Alexandria"; and that the winner of an old 1929 newspaper competition was "pay on time, emit no yap." Also included are special palindrome puzzlers and "calculator words" created by numbers on an upside-down calculator.

On the international front, Saltveit is working on a palindrome book in Spanish with cartoonist Jon Agee, author of "Go Hang a Salami! I'm a Lasagna Hog!" An event in Barcelona is largely conducted in Catalan with some Spanish. "I'd like to get more foreign languages in the magazine, but we just don't get that many contributions."

As Rubin notes, Saltveit runs a palindrome achievement awards ceremony called the SymmyS.

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