Why baby talk is good


People often tell new parents to avoid sing-song “baby talk” with their new addition to the family because it will slow the child’s language development.

But evidence shows it does the opposite; baby talk plays an important role in development and babies prefer it to other types of speech. It’s not just the type of speech that matters. An April 2014 study by researchers at the University of Washington and the University of Connecticut found that one-on-one conversations using baby talk led to better language development. The more exaggerated the speech (“Where are your shoooes?”) and the more variance in voice pitch, the more the one-year-olds would babble, both in response and in general. By the age of two, babies who had experienced more of this chatter knew more words.

Even a “conversation” made up of pure baby-babble can be a helpful learning moment—your toddler will start to learn the give-and-take of conversation. As a parent, this is heartening news.

Children respond not only to the quantity of verbal speech that they are exposed to, but also the quality. As such, using nonsense words like “coochie-coo” and “I wove my wittle wascal,” while probably not harmful, is not nearly as helpful as using normal language in a repetitive, interactive fashion.

The one exception to this rule is when parents echo the vocalizations that they hear from their infants. For example, repeating early sounds like “baa-baa” or “paa-paa” back to your baby will encourage your child to continue to verbalize, and also helps introduce the notion that normal speaking and communication is a to-and-fro activity involving both making a sound and listening for a response.

Parents looking for ideas and inspiration need only look to children’s books for examples of developmentally appropriate words in repetitive, playful sentences. Exposing children to books right from birth is associated with many positive outcomes, including stronger reading skills, improved listening ability and longer attention span.

Parents often worry that speaking in a childish voice to their young infant will lead to their child continuing to speak in a “baby voice” when they are older. Fortunately this does not seem to the case. Most often, both parents and child naturally give up speaking in baby talk once the child hits the toddler stage.

Who uses baby talk?

Scientists used to call baby talk “motherese”. Now it’s referred to as infant-directed speech because not only mothers, but fathers, strangers and even three-year-old children use it when talking to a baby. Just about everyone uses it, even if they’re trying not to. Researchers in Cambridge believe that babies learn best when their brain waves are in sync with their parents’.

The study has also shown that infants are attuned to baby talk and nursery rhymes.

The research indicates that babies need to feel safe, secure and loved for brain connections to be properly formed to enable them to learn effectively.

The findings are emerging from a baby brain scanning project at Cambridge University.

The behaviours that love produce are good for learning Dr Victoria Leong, Cambridge University

To a newborn, the world is a rush of sights and sounds, an overload of information. But then the world gradually comes into focus. Babies soon learn to recognise faces and voices and over the coming months learn how to move, understand language and make sense of what is around them.

This is a crucial moment in all our lives when important connections are being formed in the brain.

To learn just how this happens, researchers at a baby lab in Cambridge are scanning the brains of babies and their mums while the two are interacting in learning activities.

The early indications are that when the brain waves of mothers and babies are out of sync, the babies learn less well. But when the two sets of brainwaves are in tune they seem to learn more effectively.

Dr Victoria Leong, who is leading the research, has discovered that babies learn well when their mums speak to them in a soothing sing-song voice which she calls “motherese”.

Dr Leong’s research shows that nursery rhymes are a particularly good way for the mums in her study to get in sync with their babies.

“Although it sounds odd to us, babies really love listening to motherese even more than adult speech. It holds their attention better and the speech sounds clearer to them. So we know the more motherese the baby hears, the better the language development,” she said.

Dr Leong says the same is undoubtedly true if infants hear baby talk and nursery rhymes from fathers, grandparents and any other carers, but her experiments to date have focused on the interaction between mothers and their babies.

“The baby brain is set to respond to motherese, which is why it is such an effective vehicle for teaching babies about new information,” she says.

Dr Leong’s team has also found that babies respond better when there is prolonged eye contact. Mums who sang nursery rhymes looking directly at their babies held their attention significantly better than those who gazed away, even occasionally. So should busy, multitasking parents worry if they occasionally glance at their phones while caring for their babies?

“No, not at all,” says Dr Leong. “By-and-large, most parents do a wonderful job with parenting. Brain development is only affected in extreme cases of neglect or lack of attention.”

Dr Leong’s findings, that babies respond well to good face-to-face interactions and conversations is well established in behavioural studies. But what is new is that her team is trying to learn what happens inside the brain when babies are receiving quality attention.

“My work is to understand the neurological underpinnings of these effects,” she said.

“How is it that the baby’s brain treats the social interactions with its mother and how is it that it is helping learning?”

Babies learn by making physical connections in their brains when they learn something new. Human brains take years to develop because we have so much to learn. Babies explore different ways of making sense of the world mostly through play until they suddenly make a breakthrough and it is then that a connection is formed and strengthened in their brain.

But, according to Dr Kirstie Whitaker, who is a brain researcher at Cambridge University’s psychiatry department, sometimes this can happen too quickly.

“If babies experience stress early in life, their brains develop a little too quickly and so rather than work out the very best connections they should make, they go with ones that are good enough.

“And so one of the reasons I would urge a supportive and nurturing environment is to allow children to explore and stay in that particularly curious and flexible brain development for as long as possible.”

And so, is the research suggesting that love helps form the physical connections necessary for brain development?

“The behaviours that love produce are good for learning,” says Dr Leong. “Drawing each other into conversation, giving each other attention and being in the moment together are all good for learning.”

What is baby talk?

Baby talk has shorter sentences, simpler words and more repetition. But it’s not only baby words like “tummy” that make it attractive to babies. Much more important, especially in the first 18 months or so, are the sounds of baby talk. Baby talk has a characteristic structure, rhythm and use of emotion.

Recollect John Travolta reading the stockmarket listings in a sing-song voice to baby Mikey in Look Who’s Talking. It wasn’t the words that made baby Mikey happy, but the sounds and intonation.

Compared with adult-directed speech, infant-directed speech has more emotion, irrespective of the actual words used. It has a higher pitch and more up-and-down patterns, which attract infants’ attention. It also has more hyperarticulated vowels and consonants, which exaggerate the differences between sounds.

It turns out this exaggeration helps language development. When mothers use more exaggerated vowels in baby talk their babies are better able to distinguish speech sounds. And exaggerated vowels help children acquire larger vocabularies.

What about other cutesy-wutsey speech?

Baby talk differs from other cutesy-wutsey speech, such as that directed to pets. We increase emotion and raise the pitch of our voice when talking to dogs and cats. But while this makes it sound cutesy-wutsey, research shows we don’t exaggerate the vowels as we do in infant-directed speech. This is perhaps because most animals can’t learn human speech (parrots being one exception).

We also exaggerate vowels to computer talking heads, but we don’t raise the pitch.

And when talking to foreigners, we exaggerate vowels but show more negative emotion.

So we adjust the ingredients of our speech (pitch, emotion, vowel exaggeration) to suit the needs of the audience.

How old is too old for baby talk?

We adjust the ingredients mix within baby talk over infants’ first year to match their developmental level. We continue to do so as children become older and their language knowledge becomes more advanced.

The developmental adjustments mothers make follow infants’ speech preferences across ages: more emotional at three months, approving at six months, and directive (“yes, look at the doggie”) at nine months. How mothers talk to their baby is automatically in synch with their baby’s preferences.

So don’t worry about knowing when to stop using baby talk – your child’s behaviour will guide you. This is not because parents are following some child development manual; mother and infant have a highly developed conversational dance, and under normal circumstances each responds to the nuances of the other’s speech.

Is all baby talk the same?

Baby talk can differ from the norm under certain circumstances. Baby talk by postnatally depressed mothers, for instance, tends to have less exaggerated pitch intonation.

And baby talk to hearing-impaired infants does not contain exaggerated vowels.

Is baby talk the same in all languages?

Some form of baby talk seems to be used across all languages, though it has only been studied in only a few of the world’s 7,000 languages. Nevertheless, we know baby talk differs as a product of linguistic and cultural factors.

Caretakers and infants work as a team to provide an optimal developmental context. In English, this entails baby talk with a mix of pitch, emotion and sound exaggeration optimal for each infant. Other ingredients are most certainly involved, at least in other languages.

Irrespective of the ingredients or language, participation in the parent-infant dance results in baby talk. When each party attends, observes, listens, the dance is smooth. When one party doesn’t or can’t act on feedback from the other, toes get stepped on.

Is my child gifted?

Child psychologists say that some babies and toddlers do develop certain skills early, such as speech, motor skills and general awareness.

However, often these developments are not diagnostic or predictive of having a gifted child later in life. Often these early developers will ‘even out’ with everyone else come school age.

Despite this, it’s very common for parents to mistake early development as giftedness. Early development is a wonderful thing, and it’s great watching your child grasp language and motor skills ahead of expected time periods. However, all children develop different skills at a different rate and, just because your child is ahead of the pack at two years, doesn’t mean that their development will continue at the same rate in future years.

So what should parents who feel their baby or toddler is gifted do?

The best thing to do when you see your baby or toddler achieving milestones early is sit back and enjoy.The most important thing at this stage is to let your child explore their world at a pace that suits them. There’s absolutely no need to push children at this age simply on the premise that you suspect they may be gifted, as only time will tell.

TV noise can slow toddler word learning, study finds

Background noise from the radio or TV might be making it harder for your toddler to learn learn new words, a new study has found.

Scientists conducted experiments where children aged around two were taught new words while hearing soft or loud background speech.

Only toddlers exposed to the quieter sounds successfully learned the words.

Further tests showed they were better at grasping the meaning of words that had earlier been learned in a quieter environment.

Psychologist Brianna McMillan, from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, US, said: “Learning words is an important skill that provides a foundation for children’s ability to achieve academically. “Modern homes are filled with noisy distractions such as TV, radio, and people talking that could affect how children learn words at early ages.”Our study suggests that adults should be aware of the amount of background speech in the environment when they’re interacting with young children.”

EPP supports parentese talks

Speak Parentese, Not Baby Talk. See a baby and you’ll probably start talking in a high-pitched tone and stretching out your vowels. “Whoose a prettyy baybeee?” Experts call this musical way of talking “parentese” and report there’s a true value to it. Parentese helps parents and caregivers connect to their babies and helps babies develop language skills.

Everyone talks parentese. The sing-song speech, often accompanied by exaggerated facial expressions, seems to be used by almost everyone who talks to a baby. Parentese is not merely an English-speaking practice. It’s spoken around the world, because we all love to do it — mothers, fathers, grandparents, friends, older siblings, even preschoolers. And what’s more, babies seem to like it too.

Parentese delights babies. Research shows that infants actually prefer parentese to adult conversations. They will turn their head to hear it, even if it’s spoken in a foreign language. Babies not only enjoy the high-pitched sounds, they also like watching our faces as we talk to them.

Parentese helps babies learn language. The elongated vowels, high pitch, exaggerated facial expressions and short, simple sentences actually help infants learn language. Their brains are “mapping” the sounds they are hearing, and talking in a way that gets their attention helps them learn to speak and understand language.

How do you talk Parentese?

Parentese features well-formed, elongated consonants and vowels. We tend to pronounce words precisely when we talk to babies — pulling out the vowel sounds and clearly voicing consonants — in marked contrast to the hurried way we speak to other adults. A “sweet baby” becomes a bright “sweeet baybeee.” Move in close so your baby can see your eyes widen and sparkle and your lips move.

How is Parentese different from baby talk?

Baby talk uses sounds and nonsense words. Parentese uses actual words, in short and simple sentences, often repeated over and over again, for example, “Who’s my li-i-ttle baybee? Are you my littlee baybee? Yes, yoooo are!”

With inputs from Denis Burnham, who is a Professor in Speech & Language Development, Western Sydney University and www.bbc.com.


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