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, well...like 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.
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.
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.
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.
Awesome, I have some field work for you.
Phase One: Find a few different babies or toddlers and tell them about your day in a perfectly normal adult way of speaking, just as you would talk to a friend. Are the children engaged? Are they listening to you? For how long? Take notes.
Phase Two: Now tell about your day again, but this time squat down to eye level, use gestures, raise your eyebrows, elongate those vowels, and use musical prosody. Add in some onomatopoeia if you're feeling ambitious.
I can tell you right now, even as an adult, I would pay way more attention to version two. In fact, I sometimes use these same tricks to get my fiancé to listen to me.
And it works.
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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.