Twin talk

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If you're one of the ten people who haven't seen the twin-baby-conversation video, here you go:

(Part 1 is here.)

As Geoff Pullum noted in email,

It isn't as funny as the Ranting Toddler, but it sure does suggest that the idea of conversation, complete with intonation and hand gestures, emerges way before even a single word is learned.

At 17 months of age, these guys are old enough that they also probably have some words, but in this interaction they're obviously working on something besides vocabulary development.

Update — there's some discussion here, pointed out to me by Ben McGuire. And Michael Ramscar noted a similarity to this aphasic patient.


  1. Victor Mair said,

    March 31, 2011 @ 8:19 am

    Magnificent! These two little guys have a very wide range of intonational (interrogatives, emphatics, and maybe even an occasional expletive thrown in there once in a while) and gestural (flamboyant arm shakes, tossing of the head, squatting down) expression. Their language, however, sounds to me like they're saying mostly "Da-da-da, da-da da da da-da-da!" (Maybe they really, really like their Pa.) This is in contrast to the famous "Ranting Toddler" I told Geoff Pullum about (; she seems to be a bit older and is already trying out various other vowels and consonants. Wouldn't it be fantastic if we could get her together with the twins?!!

  2. chris said,

    March 31, 2011 @ 8:20 am

    It isn't as funny as the Ranting Toddler, but it sure does suggest that the idea of conversation, complete with intonation and hand gestures, emerges way before even a single word is learned.

    Emerges, or is picked up by observing adults doing something similar? I'd bet on the latter.

  3. charai said,

    March 31, 2011 @ 8:41 am

    Not as funny as ranting toddler?

    Only because you haven't seen this version:

  4. Spell Me Jeff said,

    March 31, 2011 @ 8:43 am

    Of course it's picked up by observing adults (or siblings, or Spongebob), just as vocabulary and syntax are. I think the point is that the facility for conversation seems to emerge before other aspects of language. At least in these kids.

    One more data point for the theory that humans developed language for purposes other than the exchange of information.

  5. Wm Annis said,

    March 31, 2011 @ 9:14 am

    They're also turn-taking and (usually) looking each other in the face while talking. The whole apparatus of an adult conversation is there — except language.

  6. Matt McIrvin said,

    March 31, 2011 @ 9:48 am

    As my wife remarked, the one in front seems to be the provocateur, trying to get laughs out of the other one.

  7. DonBoy said,

    March 31, 2011 @ 9:52 am

    If this doesn't become the new "Downfall", meme-wise, I'll be very disappointed. The link a few comments up is a good start. (I was thinking the conversation would start "Where's my other —-ing sock, but there you go.)

  8. Dick Margulis said,

    March 31, 2011 @ 9:55 am

    "emerges way before even a single word is learned"

    Well, whether or not they sometimes utter words (as one might expect from 17-month-olds), it is clear that children learn words and believe themselves to be speaking words some months before their babbling sounds like intelligible words to adults.

    I'm not suggesting that the twins understand each other's babbling, but I don't think we can rule out the idea that each of them thinks he is uttering meaningful sentences.

  9. Theodore said,

    March 31, 2011 @ 9:59 am

    Are you sure they aren't just beeping in German? (Wondermark)

  10. blahedo said,

    March 31, 2011 @ 11:50 am

    My cousin's daughter, when she was about 2 or 3, did have some words but had fantastic prosody and a sense of discourse, so when she would talk to you, even if you *knew* she wasn't saying anything, there was enough phonemic content and so much prosody that you just couldn't help trying to comprehend, and follow up with questions like "the what?" "to who?" "where?" It was awesome (and incredibly frustrating!)

  11. William Ockham said,

    March 31, 2011 @ 1:09 pm

    As the parent of identical twin boys (now 12 years old), this brings back memories. My boys weren't quite as verbal as these two, but they did have "conversations" of (apparent) nonsense syllables and much gesturing. I remember vividly one afternoon watching them engage in what appeared to be a conspiratorial conversation, complete with "whispering". Then, one of them took off as fast as could towards the kitchen. I jumped up off the couch and followed him. When I got to the kitchen, he turned around and stared at me. Then, I hear giggling and thumping from the the other room. I picked my son up and went back to find my other son rummaging in the storage closet (which was forbidden to them).

    I could never shake the feeling I'd been the victim of a toddler diversionary tactic.

  12. Eric P Smith said,

    March 31, 2011 @ 4:34 pm

    I suspect that William (above) probably was the victim of a toddler diversionary tactic, and I suspect that the two toddlers in the above video probably are exchanging information. I know very little about first language acquisition, but I do know from general knowledge that twins often develop a private language. The two toddlers’ phonemes may be rudimentary, but surely their intonation and gestures are varied enough to be capable of carrying information?

    On the other hand, I can’t stand their high-rising terminals…

    [(myl) It seems unlikely that material as phonetically unmodulated as this recording actually contains any communicated lexical material (as opposed to acting out conversational interaction without any propositional content). The "private languages" of siblings are not like this, for an obvious reason: it's hard to develop an effective human spoken language with only one syllable. Instead, "private languages" are more like this (I don't know whether that other clip is double-talk or not, but it has enough phonetic modulation to make lexical/propositional content a possibility.)

    It's possible that variations in timing and pitch are carrying some quasi-lexical information here in the twin interaction embedded in the body of the post, but I rather doubt it.]

  13. Martin J Ball said,

    March 31, 2011 @ 6:37 pm

    OMG – it's Bill and Ben the flowerpot men (1960s UK TV reference)

  14. ShadowFox said,

    March 31, 2011 @ 6:48 pm

    Now I know how dogs feel…

  15. Eric P Smith said,

    March 31, 2011 @ 7:37 pm

    Mark, thank you for your careful explanation appended to my comment.

  16. Rod Johnson said,

    March 31, 2011 @ 8:20 pm

    It's difficult to find Jean-Pierre Gorin's film "Poto and Cabengo," about twins with a "private language," but it's worth it. (You can find the opening minutes on Youtube by searching for the title.)

  17. Lucy Kemnitzer said,

    March 31, 2011 @ 11:26 pm

    These babies are at the older end of the range of the babies who I care for right now (I have five in my group: youngest is ten months, oldest is almost twenty months). I would think that the conversation going on in the video is pure comedy, just based on what I see babies do all the time. The joke, I think, hinges around that one arm gesture and the really emphatic statement that goes with it: the other bits are commentary, extensions, or reactions.

    (I think I'm a dork, explaining a baby's joke)

    I'm really, really doubtful that these babies have no words to use in more specific conversations, though. I hear individual words from babies much younger than that, including babies who don't express themselves nearly so eloquently. I think most people hear those individual words less readily because they don't know the usual baby imprecisions of pronunciation and because they don't know how babies sound when they're indulging in true babble and "jargoning" (an unfortunate term that people use to denote the thing these babies are doing with intonation and expression — I think it's unfortunate because there's another really different meaning for the word), so they think all of it is babble. To parents, I describe the individual words that babies use as "phantoms" — because the babies will get a recognizable, appropriately-applied word out, and then it may be a long time before they figure out how to repriduce it.

    Whereas babble is really reproducible from early on, and gets sufficient results.

  18. J. Goard said,

    March 31, 2011 @ 11:42 pm

    What gets me about this thing so far: nobody pouring cold water on the media/public's utterly ridiculous notion that the expressive mental space of a prelinguistic child is similar in its essentials to that of a fully linguistic child. I've watched media clips and commentary, and nobody is even asking what would it mean to say that these boys are "talking about a sock"…

  19. Matías said,

    April 1, 2011 @ 2:00 am

    I suppose this means there is a DaDaP[SpecDaDa DaDa'[…]] heading every single sentence ;D

  20. Development of language in twins « Father in a Strange Land said,

    April 1, 2011 @ 7:26 am

    […] Brought to my attention by the wonderful Language Log. […]

  21. Lucy Kemnitzer said,

    April 1, 2011 @ 8:24 am

    @ J. Goard: I don't know what you mean by "notion that the expressive mental space of a prelinguistic child is similar in its essentials to that of a fully linguistic child"

    what is a "fully linguistic child?"

    what does "expressive mental space" mean?

    and what are its essentials?

    I'm not being facetious, here: I think I probably agree with something you're alluding to here, but there's something really irritating about it, and I don't know what, and I'd like to.

  22. J. Goard said,

    April 1, 2011 @ 11:03 am

    @Lucy Kemnitzer:

    I really appreciate your response. I can see what's really irritating about both expressions myself: they both point to fuzzy distinctions with many unknown factors, but my phrasing makes them sound categorical. In my defense, I was trying to point to some of the most complex and controversial issues in the study of language — about which I certainly don't know enough to take very strong positions — in such a way as to be neutral with respect to different academic views, while attacking the bullshit of laypeople and their media.

    On the first point ("fully linguistic child"), I definitely see problems at a theoretical level. I'd say I'm pretty solidly in the camp of "usage-based" theorists. I essentially believe that one never really finishes learning a language, even in terms of very basic grammatical constructions, since frequency effects are a fundamental part of their characterization. Speaking loosely, though, I think it's pretty clear that normal children, at some point well before puberty, can communicate with adults in a way that's primarily limited by vocabulary and world knowledge, and comparatively very, very little by grammar, phonology, speaking or listening rate. Please understand this as "fully linguistic".

    On the second point ("expressive mental space"), I'll just say that, without setting out some unjustifiably detailed account of language and broader cognition, I think I can fairly make some limited assessments, especially ruling some stuff out. In this case, I want to rule out the notion that these boys are able to mentally produce communicative intentions like what you or I (or a typical six-year-old) would express with sentences like Hey, where's my sock? I don't know. Why are you asking me? at a point in linguistic-cognitive development where they're not even using distinct lexical items. The media and public response overwhelmingly presents them as if cognitive development were irrelevant, as if they were little six-year-old thinkers, trapped inside a linguistic system that's limited to /da/+intonation, except for the other child who can "interpret". I don't have to take a stand on reasonable theoretical disagreements in order to be annoyed by this crap, especially because of how it reduces an authentically amazing phenomenon to a pedestrian joke.

  23. Rod Johnson said,

    April 1, 2011 @ 5:22 pm

    Damn those people and their jokes!

  24. Debbie said,

    April 1, 2011 @ 7:45 pm

    Most striking thing for me seems to be the boys' delight in their interaction – I would guess it's a form of play by imitation of adult conversation for the sheer fun of it, rather than an attempt at communicating anything specific, but I'm no expert. Is it known whether babble or the tendency to make a wide range of pre-verbal noises runs in families or is connected to other things such as language acquisition in general – or indeed 'talkativeness', if that's a recognisable trait? I remember a friend's daughter babbling away long before the seven-month stage when babbling supposedly starts; she would do it a lot of the time, often seeming to imitate the intonations of adults around her, and she was piecing together sentence fragments by the age of two; her mother and grandmother were the two most talkative people I've ever met – woe betide anyone wanting to get a word in edgeways when the three of them were together. I'd be interested to know what the twins' family is like – how much conversation and debate goes on around them or whether their cute double act has developed independently.

  25. Graeme said,

    April 1, 2011 @ 10:58 pm

    It's the way he tells 'em.

  26. Troy S. said,

    April 2, 2011 @ 10:04 pm

    Interesting point about lack of phonetic modulation. It reminds me of speaking in tongues. Not that I deny the gifts of the Spirit, but in my limited experience, whenever I've heard somebody attempt to (televangelists for example) there seem to be a lot of repeated syllables and a narrow range of phonemes. (I suppose the same thing happens in doing impressions of foreign languages.) I wonder if there's a similar mental process.

  27. David J. Littleboy said,

    April 3, 2011 @ 7:08 am

    Just don't teach those kids jazz:

  28. Stan said,

    April 5, 2011 @ 6:22 pm

    Further discussion here: 'these two are demonstrating great mimicking of multiple aspects of conversation'.

  29. Mike Maxwell said,

    April 6, 2011 @ 9:15 pm

    Graeme: this is all very nice, but can you please explain the punch line for me?

  30. Babbling twins « Sentence first said,

    April 8, 2011 @ 9:06 am

    […] language”, but this is improbable; it’s a rare phenomenon. As Mark Liberman writes in a comment at Language Log, It seems unlikely that material as phonetically unmodulated as this recording […]

  31. Emily Viehland said,

    April 10, 2011 @ 2:58 pm

    @J. Goard

    As a student of child language acquisition, and as a mother of 4, I will have to say that having one sock missing is a salient point for reasonable discussion at that age. In other words, I always fussed at my kids and made a big deal out of finding socks and replacing socks once they were pulled or kicked off. It is easy to get into the trap of the child whipping one off as a game; even if it is not a game, it is still a concept (one sock on, vs 2, vs none) that kids grasp early.

    Cognitively, they can count none-one-many well before 6 months of age; a 17-month-old surely can note how many socks are present on his own (or his brother's own) feet.

    In this video, the two boys were clearly getting a kick out of comparing the number of socks they are wearing. Why it was _so_ funny remains a mystery, but it is something that they can cognitively handle.

  32. AB said,

    May 1, 2011 @ 2:21 pm

    Ha ha ha very nice my wife loved it.

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