Research highlight

Human behaviour: Children’s ability to recognize emotions from tone of voice not limited by language

Scientific Reports

June 15, 2018

Children are able to recognize emotion from the sound of people’s voices both in their native language and in foreign languages, although recognition is more accurate in the native language, a study in Scientific Reports suggests.

Georgia Chronaki and colleagues asked 57 children and 22 young adults, with no experience of foreign languages, to complete a vocal emotion recognition task in their native language (English) and three foreign languages (Spanish, Chinese, and Arabic) by listening to actors speaking pseudo-sentences in voices that expressed anger, happiness, sadness, fear and neutrality.

The authors found that the children more accurately recognized vocal emotions in their native language, although they were also able to recognize them in foreign languages. The children were also more accurate at recognizing angry and sad voices than happy and fearful voices. Because the task involved pseudo-sentences that did not include meaningful content, the authors suggest that emotion recognition appears to be specific to vocal rather than linguistic aspects. They propose that while the ability to recognize emotions from the sound of someone’s voice - the pitch, loudness, and rhythm - rather than what they are saying is universal and present from childhood, there is also an “in-group advantage” for more accurate recognition in the native language based on socio-cultural rules.

The authors also showed that vocal emotion recognition improved from adolescence to adulthood with smaller improvements between childhood and adolescence. This suggests that adolescence is an important period for the development of emotion recognition skills.

doi: 10.1038/s41598-018-26889-1

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