Vocal input and output among infants in a multilingual context: Evidence from long-form recordings in Vanuatu

Dev Sci. 2023 Jul;26(4):e13375. doi: 10.1111/desc.13375. Epub 2023 Mar 12.


What are the vocal experiences of children growing up on Malakula island, Vanuatu, where multilingualism is the norm? Long-form audio-recordings captured spontaneous speech behavior by, and around, 38 children (5-33 months, 23 girls) from 11 villages. Automated analyses revealed most children's vocal input came from female adults and other children's voices, with small contributions from male adult voices. The greatest changes with age involved an increase in the input vocalizations from other children. Total input (collapsing across child-directed and overheard speech, and across languages) was ∼11 min per hour, which was at least 5 min (31%) lower than that found in other populations studied using comparable methods in previous literature, as well as in archival American data analyzed with the same algorithm. In contrast, children's own vocalization counts were two to four times higher than previous reports for North-American English-learning monolingual infants at matched ages, and comparable to estimates from archival American data, consistent with a resilient language-learning cognitive system for this aspect of vocal development. The strongest association between input and output was with vocalizations by other children, rather than those by adults, which is consistent with research in anthropology but less so with current theoretical trends in developmental psychology. These results invite further research in populations that are under-represented in developmental science. RESEARCH HIGHLIGHTS: Combining long-form recordings with automated analyses, we estimated infants potentially exposed to ∼2.6 languages heard ∼11 min of speech per hour. Infants' input was dominated by vocalizations from female adults and from other children, particularly for the oldest infants in our sample. The strongest association between children's own vocalization counts and input counts was with those of other children, and not those with adults. Results invite further research on individual, group, and population variability in input quantity and composition, and its potential effects on vocal development.

Keywords: infant-directed speech; language acquisition; long-form recordings; multilingualism.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Language
  • Language Development
  • Male
  • Multilingualism*
  • Speech
  • Vanuatu
  • Voice*