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

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
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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