New research confirms children’s ability to recognise emotion from tone of voice

13 June 2018

Study helps to shed more light on the universality of language

According to a new study published in Nature’s Scientific Reports, researchers have confirmed that children as young as 8 can recognise emotion from the sound of people’s voices, regardless of language.

The study, which was led by Dr Georgia Chronaki, Lecturer in Developmental Neuroscience at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan), alongside a team of international researchers, aimed to look at the development of vocal emotion recognition between childhood and adulthood.

Researchers tasked 57 children aged between 8 and 10, adolescents between 11 and 13, as well as 22 young adults aged 19 to 35, with no prior experience of foreign languages to complete a vocal recognition task in both their native language and three foreign languages; Spanish, Chinese and Arabic. Actors spoke sentences with pseudo-words that expressed a range of moods including anger, happiness, sadness and fear, and the subjects were asked to identify these emotions.

The results revealed that children responded to emotion regardless of language, but were more accurate in their native language than foreign languages. These skills vastly improved from adolescence to adulthood, which suggests that adolescence is a crucial period for developing these emotional recognition skills. The study also found that children were more accurate in recognising angry and sad voices compared to happy and fearful voices.

UCLan’s Dr Chronaki said: “This study has helped to shed more light on the universality of language. The innate ability that children have to pick up on small socio-cultural clues is remarkable, and the fact that this ability strengthens from adolescence will help us to understand how we can enrich these skills in the later developmental stages of life.”