Perspectives on the origin of language: Infants vocalize most during independent vocal play but produce their most speech-like vocalizations during turn taking


A growing body of research emphasizes both endogenous and social motivations in human vocal development. Our own efforts seek to establish an evolutionary and developmental perspective on the existence and usage of speech-like vocalizations (“protophones”) in the first year of life. We evaluated the relative occurrence of protophones in 40 typically developing infants across the second-half year based on longitudinal all-day recordings. Infants showed strong endogenous motivation to vocalize, producing vastly more protophones during independent vocal exploration and play than during vocal turn taking. Both periods of vocal play and periods of turn-taking corresponded to elevated levels of the most advanced protophones (canonical babbling) relative to periods without vocal play or without turn-taking. Notably, periods of turn taking showed even more canonical babbling than periods of vocal play. We conclude that endogenous motivation drives infants’ tendencies to explore and display a great number of speech-like vocalizations, but that social interaction drives the production of the most speech-like forms. The results inform our previously published proposal that the human infant has been naturally selected to explore protophone production and that the exploratory inclination in our hominin ancestors formed a foundation for language.

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