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Recognizing Intentions in Infant-Directed Speech

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In all languages studied to date, distinct prosodic contours characterize different intention categories of infant-directed (ID) speech. This vocal behavior likely exists universally as a species-typical trait, but little research has examined whether listeners can accurately recognize intentions in ID speech using only vocal cues, without access to semantic information. We recorded native-English-speaking mothers producing four intention categories of utterances (prohibition, approval, comfort, and attention) as both ID and adult-directed (AD) speech, and we then presented the utterances to Shuar adults (South American hunter-horticulturalists). Shuar subjects were able to reliably distinguish ID from AD speech and were able to reliably recognize the intention categories in both types of speech, although performance was significantly better with ID speech. This is the first demonstration that adult listeners in an indigenous, nonindustrialized, and nonliterate culture can accurately infer intentions from both ID speech and AD speech in a language they do not speak.

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