The "uh" and "um" breaks in natural speech aren't as useless as you might think them to be — at least for children learning the ins and outs of language.
A group of researchers found these breaks in speech, commonly called "disfluencies," may help youngsters pick up what's important in conversation. The team also discovered that the ability to pay attention to disfluencies develops at around 2 years of age.
For instance, if a parent says, "Come look at thee, uh, hummingbird," the disfluency "thee" and "uh" indicate something novel or important will follow.
Adults are known to pick up on these lingual cues as well.
Such communication helps listeners clarify what the speaker intends. Humans use other means to gather meaning from speech, including visual cues, pointing and eye contact to discern verbal messages, say researchers.
In the study, featured in the journal Developmental Science, parents volunteered their children to take part. In the first experiment, 16 toddlers sat on their parents' laps while researchers ran a series of objects — both familiar and new — on a large screen. A voice recording played back statements about the objects with and without using disfluent words.
A second experiment was conducted with 32 younger children.
During both experiments, an eye tracking machine recorded the children's visual attention toward the screen and objects.
For example, one trial presented a ball and stated, "I see the ball!" while another would repeat something along the lines of "I see thee, uh, ball!" New objects with unfamiliar names such as a "Tibble" and "Gorp" were used, too.
Since researchers presented both new and familiar objects with and without speech disfluencies, they were able to get a better idea of what was causing the increased attention in children.
They found that children not only looked more frequently at the objects described using disfluencies, but they spent more time looking at the object as well.
Although more research needs to be done, the group concluded that children's increased attention to objects with disfluencies is unlikely to only occur when children are presented with new objects because their novelty would have worn off with repeated exposure through trials.
Instead, it seems as if the speech patterns cue kids' attention to what's important or significant in the conversation.
Photo: Jackson Coles, 2, of Webster, N.Y., sitting in the lap of his mother, Christy, watches objects on a special monitor designed to track eye movement during a research study at the University of Rochester's Baby Lab. credit: J. Adam Fenster, University of Rochester