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Parentese If You Please

Updated: 5 days ago

Part 4 in our series on Early Language Support Strategies


This series is all about what parents and caregivers can do to support early language development in young children. In our most recent posts, we discussed the Hand Rule, OWLing, and Recasts. This week, we have a new strategy: Parentese


This strategy helps parents adjust their speaking pattern to help babies learn language.


Ready to learn more? Let’s go!


Parentese


When we are evaluating young children, we often ask parents...


"Does your child understand when you speak to them like an adult, rather than with baby talk?"


To which, in almost every instance, the parent says proudly, "Oh, we don't really use baby talk with them. We speak to them normally."


And this makes sense! We want our children to be able to communicate with us. And so we think that, if we talk to them reasonably as if they're an adult, they'll learn faster or learn more. But this is only partially true.


It's true, we shouldn't use "baby talk". But we also don't talk to them like adults. Instead, we should use parentese.

So, what's the difference between the two?

Parentese has a lot of similarities to the 'baby talk' that we are all familiar with. It comes with a higher pitch, drawn out vowels, and musical prosody. It involves facing the child, getting down on their level, and exaggerating facial expressions.


But there are some important differences. Baby talk usually dumbs down language, removes grammatical words to make speech more telegraphic, and uses made up or incorrectly pronounced words.


Baby want da nana? Baby talk.


Do you want the banaaaannnna -- while using a musical prosody, drawn out vowels, and raised eyebrows -- ? Parentese.


Listen as B uses this strategy with his baby brother D. Hear how he talks slowly and with an exaggerated melodic quality -- I bet he learned this from his SLP mom 😉



The Research


Parentese is research-backed! Patricia Kuhl, co-director of the University of Washington's Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences, led a study investigating what's going on inside the brains of 7-month-olds. They played babies sounds over headphones, and used magnetoencephalography (MEG) to measure the results.


The findings?


Firstly, when babies listen to adults speak, the auditory and motor-planning areas of their brain light up. That means they're not just listening -- they are actually observing the sounds, the movements of adult mouths, and internally rehearsing how to do that themselves someday.


Why is that?


Drawing out vowels and varying pitch helps babies identify where one word ends and another begins. We are also emphasizing, giving children clear models of the sounds that make up words. Getting down on their level gives them a visual model so they can see how our mouths move to make these sounds -- this is important because, as we know from Kuhl's study, babies are actually rehearsing speech motor movements in their brains long before they talk.


Simplify, Don't Dumb Down


At the same time, we aren't using telegraphic language. We might use shorter sentences and avoid overly-complex explanations, but we are using accurate grammar. All of that good correct grammar and accurate pronunciation gives babies the information and the context they need to learn.


So the key is this: emphasize, simplify, but don't dumb down.

Listen to D's grandma! She is talking to a baby in full sentences using parentese. She uses a slow, melodic tone and leaves pauses for him to coo back. Sure, he doesn't totally understand but this is the beginning of language comprehesnion. D is listening to her prosody (intonation), determining the word boundaries in his langauge, hearing the sounds (phonemes) of English, and -- of course -- enjoying time with his family!



If it Feels Weird, Don't Panic!


For some -- the teacher types, anyone who grew up with younger siblings -- using parentese comes naturally. These people probably talk in parentese to little squirrels in the neighborhood. They might have trouble turning it off, even.


To others, it feels strange and uncomfortable. This is especially true if you didn't ever interact with children until you had your very own.


That's okay! Parentese can be fairly exaggerated, but it can also be much more subtle. It just varies from person-to-person. Try a few of these tips -- or maybe even just one -- to get started:


Exaggerate your pitch and vowels to give your voice a musical quality.


Get down on your child's level, face-to-face. Sit in front of them rather than behind them during play.

Emphasize, but don't simplify - maintain accurate grammar.


Use pause time after you speak, repeat key words.


The Spectrum of Parentese


Now you might be wondering, "Ugh, so do I have to sound like Ms. Rachel??"


And the answer is no!


Ms. Rachel cranks her use of parentese, or child-directed speech, up to 11 to compensate for the fact that she is on the screen and not in-person. Children's media in general maximizes use of intonation and things like this to maximize interest.


When we use parentese in person with children, we don't need to be Ms. Rachel, but we also don't want to sound like Roz from Monster's Inc with her monotone voice and flat affect. Instead, we can strive to fall somewhere in the middle and sound like Mr. Rogers.


Listen to the difference between Alessandra and her brother-in-law. They are both using their parentese voices as they read and talk with the toddlers.



Want More?


We're also on Instagram! Find tons of posts about all manner of communication development on our page: @talktimeboston.


We also have handouts available for purchase on our learning library. Please note that these are the same handouts we give to our clients and participants in our Little Explorers groups.



Resources


Colombo, J., Frick, J.E., Ryther, J.S., Coldren, J.T., Mitchell, D.W. (1995). Infants’ detection of analogs of ‘‘motherese’’ in noise. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 41(1), 104-113.


Fernald, A., Mazzie, C. (1991). Prosody and focus in speech to infants and adults. Developmental Psychology, 27(2), 209-221.


Siegel, R. (2014, July 16). Even among babies, practice makes perfect. NPR. Retrieved August 25, 2022, from https://www.npr.org/2014/07/16/332050491/even-among-babies-practice-makes-perfect


Weppelman, T., Bostow, A., Schiffer, R., Elbert-Perez, E., Newman, R. (2003). Children’s use of the prosodic characteristics of infant-directed speech. Language & Communication, 23, 63-80.

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