The above-linked article, written by Natasha Singer and published in the NY Times on October 12, 2013, is not about how babies and toddlers can tell about your mood, but it does provide insight into how they can. The article is an interesting read about the use of emotion analytics, which uses algorithmic evaluations to identify underlying feelings in a speaker’s voice. What the article reveals is what I’ve been telling my own kids as well as my speech therapy clients for over a decade: It’s not what you say, but how you say it. I’ve been telling the parents of my clients for years that intonation, or the rise and fall of the voice in speaking (which is controlled by the speaker’s pitch, tone, and volume), is the first piece of others’ communication that a baby can understand, but it’s the last piece that he himself will be able to control.
In the article, writer Natasha Singer reminds us “Humans generally have inklings when their interlocutors, out of solicitousness or sarcasm, utter phrases aloud that contradict their inner feelings: Thanks a bunch. You’ve been very helpful. Wish I were there. Let’s have lunch.” She informs her readers about new techniques in computational voice analysis which help “identify when smiley-sounding phrases” actually reveal “frustration and grief within.” According to Singer:
Although the software is still in its early phases, developers like Beyond Verbal, a start-up in Tel Aviv, are offering the nascent technology as a deeper approach for call centers and other customer services that seek to read and respond to consumers’ emotions in real time. The company says its software can detect 400 variations of different moods.
Dan Emodi, vice president for marketing at Beyond Verbal, knows what I know in terms of the importance of understanding “the emotional side of our communications.” He, too, believes it’s not what you say, but how you say it. Call center analytics companies have developed software that can classify consumers’ spoken words into categories like “dissatisfaction” or “escalation.” Singer reports that “Beyond Verbal is proposing a different tactic with algorithms that ignore emotional trigger words like “ridiculous” in favor of voice qualities like tone and frequency.” She writes that “the business of analyzing words and their sentiments, called speech analytics, is a $214 million market, according to estimates from DMG Consulting, and used in finance, insurance, health, travel, retailing and telecommunications.”
But, these companies admittedly did not invent the idea of what many of us have known for a long time. According to company executives at Beyond Verbal, their technique is based on:
…the work of Israeli researchers in the 1990s who studied how babies understand and respond to the moods of adult speech before understanding actual language. The researchers developed their mood-detection algorithms by analyzing the emotions of 70,000 people in 30 languages. Company executives say the software can detect not only callers’ primary and secondary moods, but also their attitudes and underlying personalities.
Singer states that emotion analytics company executives envision a variety of commercial uses for emotion detection, including “consumers who might use it to analyze and modulate their own voices, as could public speakers.” There’s a chance to “test out the accuracy of the emotion meter” by checking out the mood recognition app on Beyond Verbal’s company website, although you must allow the company access to your camera and microphone in order to do so. In the absence of time, I was unable to do it this morning, but am willing to try it later!
It’s certainly a reminder to all of us with infants and toddlers in terms of how best to communicate with them for early learning. If babies and toddlers are experts at detecting intonation and non-verbal information from us, we must be teaching healthy lessons from the start regarding understanding and managing one’s own emotions that are behind the veil of our words. Since they are tiny emotions analytics “machines” themselves, they are on to us in a heartbeat in terms of hearing words we say, not understanding many of the words at all, but understanding quite well the true meaning behind what we are saying. If we don’t keep the emotional piece to communication in mind when raising or teaching infants and toddlers, development of their emotional intelligence could be seriously negatively affected, thereby affecting school readiness, ability to form healthy relationships in life, and so much more.