Speak ‘Parentese’—not Baby Talk—to Boost Language Skills

The exaggerated back and forth speaking style, not baby talk, can help babies learn to speak.

While having full-on conversations with babies can seem bizarre, it actually boost language skills, according to a new study. Unlike traditional ‘baby talk’, which typically includes talking with a different cadence at a higher tone using incorrect grammar, (think, “My widdle chiddle muhchkin”), “parentese” is a version of ‘baby talk’ that follows adult grammar patterns, just in a different tone of voice—think “Are you my widdle munchkin? Yes you are. What do you want for breakfast, oh is it milk?”

“It uses real words and correct grammar, but it does use a higher pitch, a slower tempo and an exaggerated intonation,” said Naja Ferjan Ramirez, an assistant professor at the department of linguistics at the University of Washington.

“What people think of as baby talk is a combination of silly sounds and words, sometimes with incorrect grammar,” Ferjan Ramirez explained, “like ‘Oooh, your shozie wozies on your widdle feets.”

“Parentese has three characteristics,” said Patricia Kuhl, the co-director of the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences at the University of Washington, who has been studying children’s early language learning for decades.

“One of them is that it has a higher overall pitch, about an octave higher,” Kuhl said. “Another is that intonation contours are very curvy; the highs are higher, the lows are lower, and it sounds excited and happy.

“And then it’s slower, with pauses between phrases to give the baby time to participate in this social interaction,” Kuhl said.

The new study comes from the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences, or I-LABS, at the University of Washington. Researchers examined how parent coaching about the value of parentese affected adults’ use of it with their own infants, and demonstrated that increases in the use of parentese enhanced children’s later language skills.

The study, published online Feb. 3 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, finds that parents who participated in individual coaching sessions used parentese more often than control-group parents who were not coached, and that coaching produced more parent-child “conversational turns” and increased the child’s language skills months later.

“We’ve known for some time that the use of parentese is associated with improved language outcomes,” said Patricia Kuhl, I-LABS co-director and professor of speech and hearing sciences at the UW. “But we didn’t know why. We believe parentese makes language learning easier because of its simpler linguistic structure and exaggerated sounds. But this new work suggests a more fundamental reason.

“We now think parentese works because it’s a social hook for the baby brain—its high pitch and slower tempo are socially engaging and invite the baby to respond.”

The study points to the fact that parents can actually learn about parentese through coaching, and improve language levels of their children through becoming more knowledgeable in how to properly utilize the speaking style.  

The study also has larger implications for literacy levels later in life. “We know that language skills in infancy predict subsequent stages in language development, so enhancements in language behaviors in infancy could therefore have cascading effects on speech development over time,” said Ferjan Ramírez.

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