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Talk Baby to Me

As an SLP, I frequently evaluate children under 3. When I do, there's this standardized test I use that's essentially a questionnaire for the parent -- Does your child babble? Does your child learn more new words each week? Does your child follow 2-step directions? One of the questions on the test is this:

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 looks at me and says, "Oh, we don't really use baby talk with them. We speak to them normally." And they glow with pride because they are a forward-thinking family who doesn't treat their baby, a baby.

I smile. I file this away in my brain. I make a mental note to circle back to this later because, unfortunately, that parent doesn't quite have the right idea.

The Right Idea

I get it. We want our children to be geniuses: to listen to Mozart, to engineer impressive block towers, to put all of the letters in the right place on the peg puzzle. And so we think that, if we talk to them reasonably as if they're an adult, they'll learn more. But this is only partially true.

It's correct that we shouldn't use baby talk.

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.

The Research

Now, I wouldn't be writing all of this without being backed by research!

My favorite citation for parentese is a study released in 2014. 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.

Secondly, they found that when babies hear parentese their "language development is zooming forward at a much more rapid rate" (says Kuhl in an interview with NPR's Robert Siegel).

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.