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Research to Real World: Applying scientific findings to practical parenting "Motherese"


How baby talk influences speech and language development



January 2014

One minute you're in the grocery store having a conversation with your spouse about the relative merits of goat cheese and brie, and then a baby appears and suddenly you sound like some sort of high-pitched wind-up toy, using words like cutie pie and burpie. What just happened?

Don't worry. This is totally normal. Moms, dads, grandparents and pretty much every stranger on the street (and across the world) talks like this to babies. Scientists call it "infant-directed speech." Everyone else calls it "babytalk" and "motherese." Now, I'm not talking about grown-ups saying silly things like "ga-ga goo-goo" to a baby (not that there's anything wrong with that). Rather, I'm talking about the funny ways we say regular words and sentences when talking to those little bundles of joy.

What you might not know about babytalk is that it actually plays an important role in early learning, attention and cognitive development. One benefit of babytalk is the way a talker can convey a meaningful message simply with their tone of voice. Babies pay attention and show positive emotions to the high pitch, exaggerated ups-and-downs, and smiling faces and touches that are typical of babytalk. Babies' everyday practice at sustained attention, along with the emotional connection, is a skill that will benefit them in learning situations across a lifetime. Parents have also been known to soothe fussy infants with "oh, sweet baby" or a simple "shhhhh." Of course, babies can't understand the words, but they do understand the descending melody or the white noise as a calming message. And did you know that the way you say "I love you" to your baby is unique and different from the way other parents say the same thing to their babies? Parents can convey their own identity to their babies simply by using signature speech tunes, potentially another way to bond with their babies.

Another benefit is that we naturally highlight important clues about words and language in babytalk. Just imagine how difficult it must be for babies to understand where one word or sentence starts and another begins in the midst of all the speech they hear on any given day! Parents make different vowels much more distinct when talking to babies as compared to adults. We also highlight new words we are teaching our children ("look at the red pinwheel!") or the breaks between phrases or sentences. Children attend to the high-pitched way we say "pinwheel," thereby promoting learning of the word pinwheel.

One of the most powerful research findings is that the greater number of words parents speak to their babies and toddlers, the better vocabulary and language skills those children have later on. Very recent research has shown that it's specifically the number of words spoken to the child (in that babytalk style of speech) rather than simply near the child that really matters.

Although it's probably enough for parents to know that babytalk is linked to speech and language development in their children, researchers are searching for the answers to why this link exists. Some new studies show that babies who hear a lot of words in their homes get the practice necessary to become good (and fast) processors of information, and it is this basic cognitive ability that allows them to learn new words and develop language efficiently and flexibly.

In the meantime, it's just so cool to watch a baby's face light up and listen to their little baby giggles just because they hear an engaging voice speaking to them. Don't even get me started on the cuteness that happens in the presence of infant-directed singing…

Cognitive psychologist Tonya Bergeson-Dana combines her real world experience as a mother with her professional training as a researcher to provide parents with a practical way to apply the most current findings in childhood development research to their everyday life.


Tags: In This Issue, Parenting, Research to Real World

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