The babbling phase: ranting toddler speaks out

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When the stresses and strains of university department administration get me down, when I need a break and I really want to giggle till I'm helpless, I simply close my office door, bring a box of Kleenex over to near the computer so I can wipe off the tears running down my cheeks, and watch, once again, the Facebook ranting toddler video. Victor Mair first brought it to our attention here at One Language Log Plaza, and we have been watching it occasionally ever since. The extraordinary intensity of this little girl's concentration on the nonsense she is babbling, together with the strange fantasy of the wandering themes in the subtitles, yields an experience the like of which I have never seen anywhere.

I'm assuming the performance is a result of a truly unusual degree of energy being put by this little girl into the babbling phase of language acquisition. All young children go through a stage of trying out vowels and consonants and syllables without any connection to meaning. It is usually quite early: babies in cradles can be heard trying stuff out phonetically before they go to sleep, at a point where they have absolutely no clue (so far as we can tell) about how to put together a proposition or express an idea. But I have never before seen such a commanding performance of meaningless rhetorical nothing as this. I wish I could tell you some more interesting stuff about the babbling phase of language acquisition, and make this post nominally educational, but I can't (as the great Jim McCawley would sometimes say to a class after a digression, "I've already told you more than I know about this"). It's not my area. I'm not a serious and responsible child language specialist; I'm just an admiring audience member. This little girl is a star, and I want to join her fan club.

Occasional Language Log contributor Steven Bird reports that when he showed the video to his computational linguistics class someone asked whether the subtitles were being done automatically by computer. I still don't know whether to believe him. But if it's true, fantasy and reality and the inanities of machine pseudo-translation and transcription are combining (in at least some students' addled brains) in a mix of truly surrealist strangeness; nobody knows what to believe any more.

Except that you can believe that the Facebook ranting toddler video will lift your heart and lower your stress level. Visit the bathroom before you watch it (it is forbidden to urinate in office chairs belonging to your employer), and keep the helpless giggling down so as not to disturb co-workers.

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47 Comments »

  1. anon said,

    September 3, 2010 @ 4:06 am

    Reminds me of back before I could write or spell (as a young child)… I remember mashing enthusiastically on a typewriter, scrolling the paper up and running out with it to ask adults if I had wrote a word or anything. I remember trying 2 or 3 times before realizing it was utterly futile, and that I'd never write words that way… Just kind of thinking 'oh well, guess I got to learn this some other way'

  2. Uly said,

    September 3, 2010 @ 4:12 am

    If the What to Expect books are correct, babbling is when babies go "bababababa" or "mamamamama" or "googoogagagoogoo", repetitive stuff like that. When they're making varied utterances with intonation and gestures it's "jargoning". Jargoning comes after babbling, but before actual speech.

    Not that this really matters unless, I suppose, you're a speech pathologist, but… yeah.

  3. Stan said,

    September 3, 2010 @ 4:27 am

    Funny clip! I'd be surprised if the subtitles were generated automatically. Their occasional correspondence with the kid's gestures and sounds seems too deliberate. The dramatic music helps, too — as babbling goes, this is a minor epic.

    I don't think babbling has to be repetitive, though some might define it that way. It has the general sense of making inarticulate sounds or speech, esp. as in children before they can speak coherently.

  4. Uly said,

    September 3, 2010 @ 4:48 am

    Well, like I said, having two terms for the two types of pre-speech is probably overkill for most people, except those who need to distinguish between those two types of baby non-speech.

    Often it seems to me that words can have a different meaning when being used technically (such as by, I guess, language pathologists or people studying development of language in infants, though I don't know if the WtE book *is* correct) instead of by the more casual population. It's okay to say that there's another, more limited sense of the word "babbling".

  5. Dan Everett said,

    September 3, 2010 @ 5:56 am

    Reminds me of listening to lectures on physics I have heard. While I knew that something profound was being communicated, to me it made about as much sense a mere succession of strange syllables. (And the little girl's talk does have syllables.)

    But as I think of it further, surely this is what I must sound like to my dog.

  6. Dr Spouse said,

    September 3, 2010 @ 5:56 am

    Nope, that's not babbling. It's a classic example of a child with a holistic language acquisition strategy.

    http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=1835420

  7. Luis said,

    September 3, 2010 @ 6:37 am

    My daughter occasionally "cusses us out" in babble/jargon that sounds a bit like that. (Those longer utterances tend to show up when she's frustrated or upset.) I think they're beginning to tail off as she acquires language and becomes more able to communicate what she wants, though.

  8. Ben Hemmens said,

    September 3, 2010 @ 6:57 am

    It is fascinating how much of our communicative abilities we acquire before we start using actual words.

  9. richard howland-bolton said,

    September 3, 2010 @ 7:10 am

    @anon: but, as Thomas Huxley would no doubt have told you, you just weren't allowing yourself enough time. http://howlandbolton.com/essays/read_more.php?sid=62

  10. Clare said,

    September 3, 2010 @ 7:39 am

    It's a shame the Downfall/Hitler clip got in first — this would have made an excellent vehicle for creative subtitles. My other favourite is cats hissing:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qXLxM0u1aJw

    This sort of subtitling seems popular I doubt this our toddler is computer generated (surely not the discussion of Rock n Roll) — but it's an art!

  11. Barrett D said,

    September 3, 2010 @ 8:19 am

    Subtitles remind me of Cat Against Climate Change
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=thyAeCIqLA0

  12. John Cowan said,

    September 3, 2010 @ 9:04 am

    Since there is now once again a toddler in my daily life, my grandson Dorian, who lives with his mother, his grandfather, his grandmother, and part of the time his father, all in a couple of closets^W^W^W^Wa New York City apartment, I feel moved to comment from my experience. Dorian's jargon-speech is every bit as intense as this kid's, and much less repetitive. To tell the truth, I found her rant boring compared to his, which show far more variety and equal determination (to be sure, he is now 26 months).

    I should say that Dorian makes a sharp distinction between the merely communicative functions of language, at which he is barely competent yet, and the expressive ones. He has only perhaps a dozen nouns to indicate what he wants, and if none of them fit, he has to say /mɔː/ to indicate that he wants something and it's up to us to figure out what. This overgeneralization of more is clearly tied to feeding-time dialogues with one of us: we ask him if he wants /mɔɚ↗/ ~ /moə↗/ (we are a mixed-rhoticity household), to which he affirmatively replies /mɔː↘/. But expression, ah! that's quite another thing. There he has a firm grasp of elementary rhetorical principles, and is quite capable of reducing any adult to laughter, wonder, awe, or exasperation at his whim.

    I do have a tendency to subtitle (post-title) Dorian myself, with a lot of "Dorian says 'X'", where X is something appropriate to the situation that he would say if he could, such as "I cannot yet solve these Piagetian conservation problems; indeed, I do not even comprehend the framing of the problem." (I remember doing much the same with his mother a few decades ago.) Ruefully I recall the saying, "First you want them to walk and talk, then you want them to siddown and shuddup."

  13. David L said,

    September 3, 2010 @ 9:06 am

    Some years ago, when I was taking a class to improve my German, I would practice at home and would find myself going from legitimate sentences and phrases to nonsensical strings of words to something resembling babbling. I thought of it* as a way to improve fluency with the sounds of German — to get a sort of "mouthfeel" for the language, if you like.

    My German is still quite mediocre but I've been told my pronunciation is pretty fair.

    *post-hoc rationalization, you understand.

  14. Paul said,

    September 3, 2010 @ 9:09 am

    Sometimes I wish what came out of my mouth made as much sense as that.

  15. Tilapia Gibbons said,

    September 3, 2010 @ 9:26 am

    Forget babbling facebook videos–I'd like to see a video of Geoff Pullum giggling till he's helpless, with a box of Kleenex near the computer so he can wipe off the tears running down his cheeks.

  16. Lucy Kemnitzer said,

    September 3, 2010 @ 9:52 am

    Thank you Dr Spouse. I'm an infant caregiver and I have been describing these approaches to language acquisition without recourse to a formal terminology for years.

    I don't understand why these journals charge $30 to read a whole article. That's nearly three hours' wages for me — or to put it in another perspective, I can buy an entire popular parenting book with that. Not that I like any of the books available in the bookstore (I'm looking for something that is cheerful, accurate, culturally-sensitive, and formatted in a magazine style so my teen moms will read it, if anybody has any suggestions).

    If they had charged a few dollars, I probably would have ordered it.

  17. David Costa said,

    September 3, 2010 @ 11:07 am

    What does the Chinese in the subtitles mean?

  18. Spell Me Jeff said,

    September 3, 2010 @ 11:09 am

    According to Aristotle, the five canons of rhetoric are:

    Invention
    Arrangement
    Style
    Memory
    Delivery

    I'd say this kid has style and delivery down pat.

  19. Peter said,

    September 3, 2010 @ 11:24 am

    The video which always has that effect on me (helpless giggles, etc.) is the "how is babby formed / how girl get pragnent" animation. Also makes for an interesting, rather tricky open-ended exercise: speculate how its errors (or rather, the errors of its source) should be placed on the typo/thinko continuum.

  20. Debbie said,

    September 3, 2010 @ 11:36 am

    The toddler's gesters remind me of my Nonna. I wonder if her parents talk with their hands. As a child, my mother would say to people, "Want her to shut up? Ask her to sit on her hands." It worked-I'd be reduced to silence!
    BTW-the babbling stage is found in deaf children and I'm not sure if this information is correct but, I've been told that we replay our last twenty minutes more as we sleep than any other part of our day. Maybe the bedtime expressiveness helps with language aquisition.

  21. Harold said,

    September 3, 2010 @ 11:59 am

    Our son (now thirty) never babbled. He was a late talker and did turn out to have a severe speech articulation impairment that didn't resolve until he was seven (after much therapy). But he is now very articulate. From seven on, he was always chosen to read aloud in class because of his clear pronunciation and grasp of meaning. Interestingly, when he was a toddler, the pediatricians were panicked and didn't know how to deal with this and I had to change doctors many times because of their weird reactions before I found one who had read up on the topic. On the other hand, the elementary school teachers were very familiar with this kind of problem. I have to hand it to the speech therapists — they are wonderful and have therapies that get results. The teaching profession could learn a lot from their methods.

  22. Dunx said,

    September 3, 2010 @ 12:19 pm

    We have a video of our oldest doing something similar when he was, oh, probably about eighteen months old (he's now five). Such passion he had, such pleading for the world to be as he wished it – then he would pause, take a drink of water, and start in again.

    I'll have to look at that again later.

  23. John Lawler said,

    September 3, 2010 @ 12:43 pm

    @ Dr Spouse, Lucy K -
    Thanks for the "holistic strategy" term. I usually call it "top-down", as opposed to the word-by-word "bottom-up" strategy. I had two kids, and the first learned English exactly the way the textbooks said, but the second (who is now a musician – http://itunes.apple.com/us/album/future-nostalgia/id388337393) came out talking, like this. Pretty much all the time. He eventually acquired English lexical items in the textbook order and rhythm, but they got dropped into his dialogues wherever they fit. A completely different experience, and one that made me suspicious of textbooks afterwards.

  24. Andrew said,

    September 3, 2010 @ 12:51 pm

    The Chinese in the subtitles:

    汉语/漢語, 华语/華語!!!

    just means Chinese, Chinese!!!*

    *It's written in both simplified and traditional characters, so 汉语 and 华语 are simplified and 漢語 and 華語 are their traditional equivalents.

    Simplifying this, the first term 汉语/漢語 hànyǔ means "language of the Han" and is the term for the Chinese language as a whole. 华语/華語 huáyǔ is the term used for Mandarin in Singapore and is generally used to refer to the Chinese language by overseas Chinese.

  25. Tom Duff said,

    September 3, 2010 @ 12:53 pm

    When she says "more, more", she's simultaneously doing a baby verson of ASL "more, more." So possibly she's not just working on making sounds, but trying to communicate something, at least for part of the video. These days lots of kids get taught bits of ASL when they're very young. Baby Signing Time is one of my grandson Gavin's favorite DVDs, and he's made good use of it since he was a few months old, well before he could be expected to communicate verbally.

  26. Tom Duff said,

    September 3, 2010 @ 1:02 pm

    Uhh, maybe it's ASL "again, again." I learned all my ASL from Gavin, and he uses it in both situations. BTW, here's video of him doing "again/more" in response to his dad playing with him.

  27. Kim Belcher said,

    September 3, 2010 @ 1:13 pm

    I have now learned, if I understand the discussion right, that both my son and daughter use a holistic strategy to approach language learning. My daughter, who always wants to be eating, looks and sounds just like this right before dinner, except with more varied syllables and more pointing at the stove. She always thinks she should be able to start eating as soon as anyone starts cooking. My son (who sounded like this at 20 months) simultaneously applies sounding out words and strategically guessing what the text should say as he reads, with occasionally hilarious results.

    So GKP, this post has become linguistically educational. Aren't you glad LL has comments now? :)

  28. Maneki Nekko said,

    September 3, 2010 @ 1:19 pm

    Love it!

    Here's another one: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RuMdIxKnqz8

    This baby seems to get slightly irritated when the man laughs. Whatever she is telling him is not a joke.

  29. Allison said,

    September 3, 2010 @ 1:51 pm

    My niece did stuff like this – never for that long, she was too busy doing other things but it looks like the video is edited so maybe the length of time she was babbling is shorter than it seems.

    Jargon babbling is always hilarious and honestly, we always assigned it meaning – absurd meanings like this. Never thought to tape it, though. I will when it's my kid, for sure.

    Jargon babbling usually overlaps with the first few real words – enough so that sometimes it was impossible to tell if we were mishearing her, she was saying something so absurd that it'd be impossible for us to parse, or if it was supposed to be gibberish. Every time I repeated the gibberish back to her, she'd look at me like I was insane, as if to say, "Why are you doing that, Aunt Alllie? You KNOW how to talk!"

    One of the acquisition theories – (and man I wish I could remember what it was called maturation v. whatever the opposite of maturation theory) suggests that children can/do acquire syntax and/or the pragmatics of conversation without the full complement of morpheme/lexemes to fill in the sentence structure and fill in the unacquired bits with gibberish. When this child comes upon a part in the sentence when she has the words, she uses them. But lack of words won't slow her down holding on the conversation.

  30. groki said,

    September 3, 2010 @ 4:06 pm

    GKP: someone asked whether the subtitles were being done automatically by computer. … truly surrealist strangeness; nobody knows what to believe any more.

    epistemologies (at least for the addle-brained among us) seem to resemble toddlers' language acquisition: the gaps are filled with gibberish.

  31. Diane said,

    September 3, 2010 @ 4:27 pm

    Hmm…my 25-month-old son must be learning language in the opposite way…bottom up, is that the correct term? He speaks slowly and carefully, and when he gets the grammar screwed up you can see him thinking about it and then he goes back and tries to straighten it out. So he says things like, "Daddy book give Danny…Daddy give book Danny…Daddy give Danny book." Meaning, in case you don't speak toddlerese, "Daddy, give me the book."

  32. Victor Mair said,

    September 3, 2010 @ 4:58 pm

    @Tom Duff, @Debbie,

    When I sent the Facebook ranting toddler video to One Language Log Plaza, I sent along this paragraph:

    ====

    What is interesting about this baby's "language" is that she accompanies it with a whole variety gesticulations, gestures, mannerisms, facial expressions, intonations, pauses, inflections, raising and lowering of voice, etc. It seems that all of these auxiliary aspects of language have gone way ahead of her actual ability to produce coherent speech. It also appears as though she desperately has ideas and thoughts that she wants to convey, but she doesn't yet have the verbal ability to do so in actual words.

    ====

    I wouldn't be surprised if there were a whole arsenal of baby gestures and mannerisms that develop before language per se, but that are also for the purpose of conveying meaning and emotion. Indeed, I have a vague recollection reading somewhere in the literature on the origins of human language about one theory that posits a stage of gestural communication before verbal communication arose.

  33. Harold said,

    September 3, 2010 @ 5:30 pm

    When we took our 28-month old old son to a speech pathologist for diagnosis, the radiator made a hissing sound and my son pointed to it and said "hot". (At that point he was just beginning to use one-word sentences). The pathologist said, "now we know 2 things. He's not deaf and he's not retarded." She promised that his speech development would be completely normal. But it didn't turn out that way at all. Until he was five no one but his father and mother could understand a word he said (though it didn't ever seem to bother him).

  34. ignatius j reilly said,

    September 3, 2010 @ 6:48 pm

    you have made my day, sir. thank you!

  35. Vasha said,

    September 3, 2010 @ 8:22 pm

    An observation about the cat-hostility video that Clare linked above: do NOT play it if actual cats are within earshot. My two cats heard that caterwauling, every hair on their body stood on end, and they attacked each other murderously (I managed to separate them without much blood shed). This is probably an indication of cats having less social sophistication than humans. If you heard a voice snarling "Wanna fight? Wanna fight??" you might answer "Yeah! Bring it on!", but wouldn't you pause and say "Wait, WHO am I supposed to fight, exactly?" Though barroom brawls might indicate the contrary.

  36. Vireya said,

    September 3, 2010 @ 9:23 pm

    I don't find the video funny, because it brings back memories of the incredible frustration of trying to communicate with my son. When he was about 14 months old he would talk for 10 minutes or more, getting more and more frustrated because we didn't understand what he was saying. I didn't have the technology available at the time to record him, but I wished I could have. He obviously had a lot he wanted to say. What he did was exactly like speech – all the intonation, the expression, the sentence breaks, just none of it was English words!

    Soon he gave up and stopped saying anything, and went back to the drawing board. He refused to make any sounds at all when we were around, although I would sometimes hear him in his cot doing what sounded like trying out words.

    Just before his second birthday he built a tower with blocks. He kicked it down and said with perfect pronunciation, "Kick!". Great rejoicing and tears of relief from all present! The next day he said, "cook", then "key", and he was away.

    I'm interested to discover that there are other children who choose the holistic way of acquiring speech. And my sincerest sympathy to their parents!

  37. Kevin Iga said,

    September 3, 2010 @ 11:22 pm

    Then there's this famous video:

    http://www.funnyordie.com/videos/74/the-landlord-from-will-ferrell-and-adam-ghost-panther-mckay

    Here's a bit of how they did it:

    http://www.funnyordie.com/videos/4152/the-landlord-out-takes-from-will-ferrell-and-adam-ghost-panther-mckay

  38. Violet said,

    September 4, 2010 @ 1:16 am

    My son (21months) seems to do a mix of "top-down" and "bottom-up". He would be repeating a word throughout the day to master it, and suddenly utters what appears to be sentence, without any coherent words. Sometimes he is utterly serious, looks me in the eye and babbles as if he expects me to understand and respond.

    Sometimes he even looks puzzled that we understood a single word but not the whole sentence he just said :).

    When he was younger, it was more hilarious because he would jump in to adult conservations at the right pause with the right intonation. This mostly happened in car rides.

  39. Cecily said,

    September 4, 2010 @ 5:23 am

    I am no linguist but have seen and heard samples of babbling babies from different language communities and they babble differently.

    Listening to this wonderful clip, I was stuck how unlike English many of the sounds are, yet when we hear an adult voice, it sounds like American English.

    Can anyone with more specific knowledge comment?

  40. noahpoah said,

    September 4, 2010 @ 9:17 am

    Dan Everett (or other interested parties): In what sense does the girl's speech have syllables? Not in the functional sense (e.g., to support phonological contrasts). While there is clear amplitude and pitch modulation, and there are at least a few times in the video that she seems to be articulating consonants reasonably clearly, much of the modulation seems to be due to oscillating jaw motion. Rudimentary syllaboids, maybe, but not syllables.

  41. ENKI-][ said,

    September 4, 2010 @ 10:57 am

    I would say that she's glossolating. (Yes, I just verbed glossolalia)

  42. Debbie said,

    September 4, 2010 @ 2:57 pm

    I worked with infants for many years and found this behaviour more typical of frustrated children. As for ASL, most infants who had been taught to communicate with ASL did so long before speaking the words although there was no delay in speech as a result of having an alternate form of communication. Since toddlers are prone to frustration, I wonder if studies have been done to see if children with alternate forms of communication such as ASL experience this less. As an aside, when children get upset in an attempt to express something try saying, "Show me." They'll point, take your hand, open doors, cupboards, refridgerators, put on boots, grab blankets…and feel valued that somebody is trying to understand.

  43. Rodger C said,

    September 5, 2010 @ 10:57 am

    Once in San Diego, where both English and Spanish are commonly heard, I heard an Anglo toddler in a supermarket respond to Spanish spoken near her by babbling in fluent faux Spanish with perfect intonation.

  44. et said,

    September 6, 2010 @ 12:36 am

    Toddler does Shakespeare:
    Brian Cox Masterclass with Theo
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=loDMRzPiCic

  45. bread and roses said,

    September 10, 2010 @ 8:18 pm

    This video seemed funny… in ways… but also sad. I wonder why the kid is sitting there, being filmed, trying to communicate, and no one is communicating back. Is she by herself? Are there adults behind the camera ignoring her? Are they miming to her? Why won't they respond in some way?

    I know that in the course of childrearing you can't respond to all your child's frustrations- but filming them seems to emphasize the lack of response, and paints a picture to me of a cold an unresponsive world. She reminds me of my grandmother, bitterly complaining in her nursing home, the more bitterly because no one pays her any mind, like the TV in the day room.

  46. Kevin Iga said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 10:20 pm

    Someone pointed out to me where this originally comes from. Here's the blog post.

    http://www.maly.tv/2007/10/03/just-talking-about-some-stuff/

    Her name is Maly, and she's a few years older now, so if you wanted to see how she communicates a bit later in life, you can check out her later blog posts.

    It's pretty clear that this is the original site since they have all the other videos, and comments from people who obviously know the parents personally, telling inside jokes.

  47. Todd the Office Chair Guy said,

    February 16, 2011 @ 1:45 am

    In addition to urinating on the office chair, I think spitting up your coffee over your work would result from watching this laugher!

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