Are YouTube Twins “talking”? Viral Video Creates Much Debate

By Lauren Lowry
Hanen Certified Speech-Language Pathologist and Hanen Staff Member

What’s in the News

On February 14, 2011, a video was posted on YouTube which sparked great interest and received millions of hits within a few short weeks! The video captures an interaction between 17 month old twin boys, “Twin R” and “Twin S” (as they are referred to on their mother’s blog,[1] During the two minute video, the twins stand in front of the refrigerator and engage in a very animated “conversation”. To watch the YouTube video, click here.

The public’s fascination with this video likely stems from the adult-like quality of the twins’ lengthy back-and-forth banter. However, many of the comments generated regarding this video refer to “twin language”, claiming that these twins seem to be speaking a secret language that only they can understand. But are these twins speaking their own secret language, or are they just babbling? And what can we learn about young children’s communication abilities from watching these animated youngsters?

Is it a secret “twin” language?

The existence of twin language, also referred to as “idioglossia”, seems to be the topic of great interest. While many parents of twins are adamant that their twins are talking in a special “language” that can only be understood by each other, many researchers claim that this is not a true language. Rather, they explain that twins are more prone to speech errors. While their unclear speech may not be well understood by their parents, it has been determined that multiple-birth children are better able to understand their siblings’ speech errors than other same-aged children.[2] As twins spend so much time together, they also seem to imitate each other’s developing speech, including the imperfections and errors. When they speak to each other, their “language” might include misarticulated adult words and invented expressions. But it is not an entirely new language, just evidence of developing language. This “twin language” generally occurs in the second year of life when immature speech emerges, and decreases considerably over the next 16 months.[3]

So what are we to make of the YouTube twins? Is this evidence of twin language or is this just babble? Let’s take a look at their “conversation” from a speech and language perspective and decipher exactly what it is that they are doing:

Smiling & Laughing The twins really seem to get a kick out of each other! Their smiles and giggles make it seem as if they understand what the other is saying. However, long before babies can understand language, they start to smile back at their caregivers (as young as 6 weeks of age!). So it is likely that these twins are smiling and laughing at how the other twin sounds and looks, versus what they are actually saying.
Eye contact The twins in the video look straight at each other when babbling to each other. While babies as young as 2 months of age have been noted to start looking at the eyes, children really start to use eye contact communicatively closer to 9-10 months of age, when they start to alternate their eye gaze between their communication partner and objects. This is demonstrated by the twin wearing one sock, who alternates looking at his brother, then at his sockless foot, then back at his brother.
Gestures Another feature that makes these twins seem like miniature adults is their use of gestures. The twins gesture by shaking their head while waving their hand, which seems to imply either a protest about something or added emphasis to what they are “saying”. The emphatic wave of their hands certainly seems to be something they may have observed and imitated from the adults in their life!
Intonation Intonation refers to the rise and fall of your pitch when you speak, or the “melody” of your speech. The twins use both rising intonation (“da da da da da?”) when seemingly asking each other a question, and falling intonation when producing what sounds like comments or statements. Intonation conveys a lot of the emotion and meaning in our speech. It is likely the twins’ adult-like intonation that sparked so many YouTube viewers to post their thoughts about the topic of this “conversation”, as their intonation gives the appearance that they are having a great debate about something!
Babbling The type of babbling these twins generate during most of this video is known as “reduplicated babbling”, which is repetitive sequences of the same consonant-vowel combination (eg. “dadadada”). This type of babbling generally emerges between 7-10 months of age.
Jargon At around 12 months of age, children produce jargon, which consists of babbled strings which are sometimes interspersed with true words, and spoken with adult-like intonation patterns. This means that the rhythm and timing of the jargon sounds like true language. The twin with one sock demonstrates jargon four times during the video when he lifts up his leg and says “dadadadada..uh”. It is likely that “uh” means “up” as he always says this while lifting up his leg.
Turn taking The twins have got this one all figured out! They know when to start talking and when to stop talking to let the other twin have a turn. And they rarely overlap or interrupt each other. Babies start taking turns with sounds when they are about 6 months of age. At that time, babies will babble back-and-forth with their caregivers, much to their caregivers’ delight!
Body positioning The twins face each other and stand near each other. This type of positioning lets your communication partner know that you are interested in what he has to say and that you are listening. The twins maintain this “conversational stance” throughout their banter.

So, what's definitive about these fascinating twins? Certainly, they are excellent nonverbal communicators! They send messages and interact with each other through their faces, sounds, body, and by taking turns. Most of all, they demonstrate that conversation is about more than just words. Babies know an awful lot about conversation before they even utter their first word.

These twins have developed all the requirements for speech. Now they just need the final piece... words! According to their mother’s blog in February 2011, the twins started using some single words, such as “apple”, “bye bye” and “bus”, which is what we would expect from children between 12 and 18 months. In fact, we recommend that an 18 month-old using fewer than 10 words should be seen by a speech-language pathologist.

In summary...

Whether you believe that these twins share a secret code or are just babbling, what everyone agrees upon is that these adorable toddlers are fascinating communicators. In an interview about the YouTube video, Karen Thorpe, professor at the Queensland University of Technology's School of Psychology and Counselling in Australia, commented: "Babies are wired for communication from the start and we see here a fine example of how sophisticated and beautiful communication in even young children can be”.

One can only imagine the great debates to come as these twin toddlers discover the power of words!

1. News article: “Babies Learn How Conversation Works Before They Learn Words”

2. Dodd, B. & McEvoy, S. (1994). Twin language or phonological disorder? Journal of Child Language, 21, 273-289.

3. Thorpe[0], K., Greenwood, R., Eivers, A., & Rutter, M. (2001). Prevalence and developmental course of 'secret language'. International Journal of Language & Communication Disorders, 36(1), 43-62.