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Why we teach babies animal sounds

Does the cat really say ‘meow’—or are we just teaching kids to be American?

The Norwegian band Ylvis’s song, “The Fox (What Does The Fox Say?),” a catchy and Euro-weird tune with a video including lots of fog machines and whipping bushy tails, brings up a pretty good question: “Dog goes woof / Cat goes meow / Bird goes tweet / and mouse goes squeak … But there’s one sound / that no one knows / What does the fox say?” Well, foxes make a sort of yip and sometimes they howl. But the fact that we don’t have a dedicated word for “fox-noise,” like the onomatopoetic words we have for dog, cat, bird, and mouse noises, tells you something about the way humans discuss animals with one another and, most particularly, with our children.

We tell babies, “The cow says ‘moo’” around the same time we tell them, “The ball is red” and with the same intention: to convey information about the world and to teach language. But “moo” is not the same kind of information as “red”; “moo” is something more wishy-washy. When we “moo” at our children, we’re not teaching them about cows or even about language in the way we might think. Instead, we’re teaching them about our culture.

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