Gaga for Goo-Goo
As Air Mail Pilot readers are only too well aware, adults do many things that are incomprehensible. One of those things is how they talk to babies.
Surely you’ve heard it, if not experienced it yourself in distant memory, the way adult voices get all high-pitched and coo-y when addressing infants: Awwww! Wook at that widdle sweeeeetie piiiiiiiie!
As annoying as baby talk is, a new study reveals that the practice is not limited to adults you may know; it appears to be a worldwide phenomenon.
Researchers at Harvard recorded adults speaking in 18 different languages across 21 distinct cultures and six continents, and the results were always the same: “In speech… infant-directedness [i.e., baby talk] was characterized by higher pitch, greater pitch range, and more contrasting vowels than was adult-directed speech from the same voices.”
To ensure that their findings weren’t merely the result of our present-day global media culture—according to an informal AIR MAIL Pilot survey, 92 percent of the world’s population has seen at least one episode of Friends where Ross coos at a baby—the Harvard researchers included “four small-scale societies that lack access to television, radio, or the internet and therefore have strongly limited to language and music from other societies.”
In other words, baby talk is something humans do naturally and instinctively. It’s also nothing new: There is evidence ancient Romans baby talked.
But… why? Linguists who study baby talk, or parentese, claim it helps infants learn language and other communications skills by emphasizing the components of speech, such as its sounds and intonations, to make them more obvious and thus easier to grasp—the go-big-or-go-home theory of language acquisition.
A previous study by a University of Washington linguistics lab has shown that over the course of a year, babies whose parents frequently baby talked learned twice as many words as babies whose parents never or only rarely baby talked. If you think about it, this makes sense: you’d be hard pressed to pick up language from people who mumble all the time.
None of this explains why people baby talk to pets, but it turns out scientists have studied that, too. One theory says that because pets don’t speak, we instinctively baby talk to them, as if they too could pick up a few words if we just babbled at them long enough.
Another theory posits that we baby talk to pets because they’re just so darn cuuuuuuuuuute—at least AIR MAIL Pilot’s two new kittens are. We can’t speak for anyone else’s.
And guess what? Scientists have also studied why adult couples baby talk to each other. Maybe even your parents do? Or have some silly mutual nickname for each other? This is a way of establishing emotional intimacy by recreating the nurturing experiences of childhood. And yuck, we’ll stop right there. —Bruce Handy
Joined at the Trunk
Everyone needs a shoulder to cry on. As it turns out, elephants need a trunk to cry on. While we already knew that the world’s largest mammals love to socialize, AIR MAIL Pilot has discovered that friends are a big help to grieving baby elephants.
Elephants have especially strong connections to their moms. It starts at birth, when matriarchal figures in a herd crowd around calves to make sure they can stand on their own four feet. Elephants rarely stray more than 30 feet away from their moms during their first decade.
Naturally, scientists assumed elephants who lost their mothers at a young age would suffer terrible repercussions, such as increased anxiety. But a new study that looked at elephants in northern Kenya revealed that good friends help orphaned elephants cope with the loss.
In Kenya, many adult elephants have been killed by poachers (people who hunt elephants for their ivory horns) and by droughts. That means lots of orphaned elephants. So, between 2015 and 2016, a group of scientists collected dung samples from 36 orphaned calves in two of the country’s nature reserves, Buffalo and Samburu, to measure their stress hormone levels. To compare, the researchers also collected dung samples from the lucky elephants who still had moms.
The results shocked the scientists. For orphaned elephants with many friends, their long-term stress levels were similar to their elephant buddies who still had their mothers around. But the shy calves without moms, the ones who went to watering holes alone, had significantly higher stress levels.
With poaching on the rise, it’s likely that there will be many more orphaned elephants in the future. Let’s hope they get by with a little help from their friends. —Elena Clavarino
Ready to Roll
Chelsie Hill started dancing when she was just three years old, and started competing nationally by the time she was five. “It was the one thing that I was really good at,” Chelsie tells AIR MAIL Pilot. “Going to practices and competitions, I really had this family and this camaraderie with the dance team. I felt like I belonged there.”
Throughout middle and high school in Monterey, California, Chelsie continued dancing and competing. Then, at age 17, she was involved in a terrible car accident. She was a passenger in a car driven by someone who was drunk, which she didn’t know. The driver hit a curb and a tree head-on, injuring Chelsie’s spinal cord and paralyzing her from the waist down. She woke up hours after the incident in a hospital to a doctor saying “you’re not going to be able to walk again.”
“I definitely went through all of the feelings of ‘why me?’” says Chelsie, who is now 30. But, she says, “I knew what I wanted to do in life. I had a very clear passion.”
After two months without dancing, Chelsie missed it too much to stay away. She thought to herself, “I don’t care what people think… I’m doing this for myself.”
The next chapter of Chelsie’s life began two years after the accident. She invited six girls who also used wheelchairs to perform a dance in front of friends and local Monterey media. “I wanted my community to see that dance is dance, whether you’re walking or rolling,” she says.
Shortly after, she moved to Los Angeles to audition for dance groups. At first, the process was grueling. “I went to some of the top dance companies and the top dance studios. I would roll in as the only wheelchair user and people would stop and give me the weirdest looks,” she explains. “I had choreographers that wouldn’t even give me the time of day.”
But Chelsie persisted, and the process helped her create a framework for other dancers who use wheelchairs. In 2012, she founded the Rollettes, an organization dedicated to empowering women with disabilities. Through it, she runs dance classes (both in-person and online), seminars, and workshops.
Then, in 2019, Chelsie created the Boundless Talent Showcase, a place for men and women with disabilities to come together and present their skills. Today, the annual talent show brings in crowds of 250 from around the world. “It’s now one of the largest women’s empowerment weekends for women and children with disabilities,” Chelsie says. “I never in a million years would have thought that would be coming out of my mouth.” —Bridget Arsenault