Dunstan Baby Language
is a claim about infantile speech patterns
and language acquisition
in humans. The claim is that across cultures and linguistic groups there are five sounds, each with a meaning, that are used by infants
during the beginning of the language acquisition
period. The hypothesis was developed by Australian former mezzo-soprano
, Priscilla Dunstan, and has been featured on the Oprah Winfrey Show
Between 0-3 months, infants make what Dunstan calls sound reflexes
. According to Dunstan, we all have reflexes, like sneezes, hiccups, and burps, that all have a recognizable pattern when sound is added to the reflex. There are other reflexes that all babies experience, and when sound is added to these, a distinct, preemptive "cry" will occur before the infant breaks into what Dunstan calls the hysterical cry
. Dunstan claims that these preemptive cries can indicate what the infant requires (e.g., food
, etc.), and they escalate to the hysterical cry if they are not answered. As the infant matures past 3 months in vocalization
, the sound reflexes become replaced with more elaborate babbling
Words (sound reflexes)
According to Dunstan, the five universal words (or sound reflexes
) used by infants are:
- An infant uses the sound reflex "Neh
" to communicate its hunger. The sound is produced when the sucking reflex is triggered, and the tongue is pushed up on the roof of the mouth.
- An infant uses the sound reflex "Owh
" to communicate that they are tired. The sound is produced much like an audible yawn
I'm experiencing discomfort
- An infant uses the sound reflex "Heh
" to communicate stress
, discomfort, or perhaps that it needs a fresh diaper. The sound is produced by a response to a skin reflex, such as feeling sweat or itchiness in the bum.
I have lower gas
- An infant uses the sound reflex "Eairh
" to communicate they have flatulence
or an upset stomach. The sound is produced when trapped air from a belch that is unable to release and travels to the stomach where the muscles of the intestine tighten to force the air bubble out. Often, this sound will indicate that a bowel movement is in progress, and the infant will bend its knees, bringing the legs toward the torso. This leg movement assists in the ongoing process.
I have gas
- An infant uses the sound reflex "Eh
" to communicate that it needs to be burped. The sound is produced when a large bubble of trapped air is caught in the chest, and the reflex is trying to release this out of the mouth.
Dunstan's claims have been opposed by researchers in the early language development and linguistic fields. Dunstan's hypothetical sounds are, from a linguistic perspective, informal: without being recorded in the IPA
, it isn't clear what phonemes
are meant by, e.g., "eai" or "rh." The sample video on the Dunstan's website shows different babies "saying" neh
; but Dunstan's intuitions about the sounds produced are not a substitute for quantifiable methodology.
The Research Page on Dunstan's website includes no details of methodology; instead, it cites only statistics of reports from parents who trialed the theory, and those reports as of Leading Edge research in Sydney concern subjective data ("found [it] very beneficial"; "felt a greater bond"). Such reports do not speak to the accuracy of the hypothesis itself.
In 2006, Stanford University requested a formal peer-review, but was rejected by Dunstan's representatives.
Dunstan's website states that the "language [is] shared by all babies throughout the world" , but beyond saying that "hundreds" of babies and "more than 400 mothers" were studied in Sydney and Chicago, it provides no specifics of how many babies were studied, in what ways, which countries they came from, nor to which adult languages they were exposed.
Additionally, the use of the word "language" is particularly loaded; to a linguist, including those working in language acquisition, language requires a mental connection formed between sounds and meanings, as well as the ability to combine the sounds and meanings in novel ways and extend them to new situations. Even if the five sounds do correspond to certain meanings, as Dunstan reports, these sounds would seem more closely related to animal communication than proper language.
Dunstan's claims have not been published in any peer-reviewed journal.
set called The Dunstan Baby Language
was released by Priscilla Dunstan in November 2006
. The two-disc set covered the five universal words of the language. Taught over two weeks, the system features methods of learning how to recognize the vocalizations and sounds, numerous examples of baby cries from around the world to "tune your ear," and live demonstrations of newborn mother groups experimenting with the language.
Disc 1 contains 32.5 minutes of content, and Disc 2 contains 28.5 minutes of content (including 'bonus features').
About Priscilla Dunstan
Priscilla Dunstan grew up with the self-proclaimed ability to have a photographic memory for sound. According to Dunstan, she could “hear a piece by Mozart once, then play it back note for note.” As a young adult, Dunstan toured Europe and Australia as a concert violinist, and later developed her talent as a mezzo-soprano. Dunstan claims her years in the opera and her experience as a mother allowed her to recognize certain sounds in the human voice. As her own son, Tomas Dunstan, began to vocalize, Dunstan took record of familiar sounds in a journal. After several years of individual observations, she created the Dunstan Baby Language.