Moms teaching tiny toddlers to a ‘T’

They might not be saying “goo-goo ga-ga,” but mothers are actually speaking baby talk each time they read to their young children.

That’s according to a new study by Robin Fritche, who is working toward her PhD in linguistics at UWM. Her new paper, “Do adults produce phonetic variants of /t/ less often in speech to children?” was published earlier this year in the Journal of Phonetics .

To conduct her research, Fritche recorded mothers reading to their young children, about ages 1-2. She analyzed their speech patterns to determine whether and how the mothers enunciated /t/ sounds. Then, she repeated the experiment while having the mothers read to an adult, and compared the results.

Her findings have implications for how young children develop their language skills, and perhaps even English-as-a-foreign-language students learn a new tongue.

Fritche sat down via Zoom to talk about her work.

As a mother of a young child myself, I’ve never thought about how I read to him. How did you become interested in moms’ pronunciation?

I had two advisors on this article: My advisor, Jae Yung Song, and [her] former postdoc advisor, Stefanie Shattuck-Hufnagel. They had found previously, comparing mothers’ speech to the children’s speech, that mothers were pronouncing /t/ sound variants more than the kids.

The next steps were to see, are the moms speaking normally to the kids, or for some reason, are they still using those enunciated /t/s? The next step was to compare how moms talk to kids versus how they talk to adults, and see if there’s a difference.

How old were the kids?

They were a bit younger than one, up to two years. My youngest was 10 months. They’re starting to gear up to talk.

We figure that mothers might be unconsciously expending a bit more effort just because of the stage of language acquisition their child is in.

So, moms might want to really enunciate /t/s so that their child will pick up those sounds and mimic them.

Right. When many people think of child-directed speech, they think of, “Do you want your ba-ba?” But that’s not what we’re looking at. We’re just looking at, within normal speech, are mothers making different sounds? Are they treating the children differently than they would speak to adults?

Why did you go with moms over dad?

Generally, women would be more likely to be more proper, to use more standard language than men, which has been found in other studies. That meant there would be fewer things to control for. Plus, the register would be different between the voices. We didn’t want to have to control for other variables.

What’s so special about the letter T? Why did you focus this experiment on /t/ sounds?

The /t/ is made on a bumpy ridge behind the teeth. It’s called the alveolar ridge. That ridge is where we make sounds for T, D, R, L, N, S, and Z.

The /t/ can be pronounced many ways. We can think about the letter T like a category. As native speakers, sometimes /t/ is really well-enunciated and sometimes it’s not. That is how people seem to describe it.

But it’s not that. We’re making different sounds. The ‘T’ in ‘pretty’ is not a /t/ sound, for example.

It’s more like /d/, isn’t it?

It’s not even a /d/ because that would be ‘prid-DEE.’ It’s actually called a flap. It happens with words that have /t/ or /d/ between two vowels and the second vowel doesn’t have stress, and that just happens in North American speech. It’s really common. Only when we’re trying to enunciate and be really clear will we say ‘pre-TY’ or ‘ci-TY.’

I thought that the moms would do that more – like, “Look at this kit-TY!”, but they mostly said ‘kitty’ (with the flap). But the difference between ‘button’ and ‘but-TON’ – they are more likely to say ‘but-TON’ to the child than they were to an adult. In ‘button,’ your tongue is not doing the same thing as in ‘kitty,’ not even close. You’re making the sound down in your throat.

What other /t/ sounds were you analyzing?

There’s the flap. There’s the sound like the first sounds in the interjection ‘uh-oh’ (which is a consonant that we don’t have a letter for in English), like we might say in ‘button.’ There are also /t/s at the end of a word, like in ‘cat’ or ‘what.’ We rarely say ‘whaT.’ You don’t really make that big burst on the end; it’s not aspirated.

In a word like ‘star’ or ‘stop’ it’s not ‘sTar’ or ‘sTop.’ If you record that and you cut off the s sound at the beginning, it will sound like ‘dar’ or ‘dop.’ They’re not really voiced, but in American English, if the sound is made on the alveolar ridge and the following vowel sound starts within a certain amount of time – within 20 milliseconds – we’ll hear the /t/ as if it was voiced anyway. Then there’s the regular pronunciation where there’s a burst of air coming out. ‘Toy,’ for example.

So, I’ve been studying a lot of /t/ stuff. My whole life revolves around /t/.

You asked moms to read to analyze their speech. Did the stories have an overabundance of /t/s?

I wrote stories and drew terrible pictures. I’m not an artist. I came up with a list of possible words – two syllable words with a /t/ in the middle ending in an ‘ee’ or ‘er’ or ‘ing,’ for example. Then I had to try to come up with a couple of stories. That’s why there are cats in both stories, because of all of the /t/ words you can get out of ‘cat.’ There are no dogs, because the word “dog” was useless to me!

The first story was about a star who wanted a kitten, and the other one was about a little girl with a big sister, and they wanted a cat.

And then you listened to each recording and analyzed how moms read to their kids versus an adult. Did moms pronounce the /t/s differently between the two?

Yes! In the case of words like ‘button’ and ‘mitten,’ and ‘kitten,’ they did. And at the end of words like ‘cat,’ they would enunciate the /t/ more often. Flaps didn’t really change (when speaking between children and adults).

What does that mean for how children learn language?

I think it’s not really conscious. Some people insisted they didn’t speak any differently at all. I think what the mothers are doing is they are using a combination of a sound. None of the moms only said ‘butTon’ or ‘kit-Ten.’ They had a mixture. Sometimes they would speak like they would speak to an adult, and sometimes they would really enunciate the /t/ with a hard burst and the aspiration of air that comes out.

We thought that maybe, by having a combination, they are giving kids the idea that this is a category. They’re hearing the same words used in the same context, and sometimes the mom enunciates the /t/ and sometimes doesn’t. This is just a guess, but the children might think, “Sometimes mom makes this sound and sometimes she makes this sound. It must not change the meaning.”

By Sarah Vickery, College of Letters & Science