What is parentese? Commonly known as baby talk, it’s a special way of talking to babies. Sometimes called motherese, this infant-directed speech is usually higher in tone, slower, shorter, and more exaggerated. As adults, we find it comes naturally to us to talk to infants in this way. It’s not something we have to be taught; it’s just something we do. Is it good for babies? Well, this is a controversial topic.
Some might argue that it dumbs things down too much and hinders babies’ language development. Others believe it to be good because it keeps infants’ attention and makes language learning more fun. I have heard both sides of the argument, and I can see the merits of both.
What research says about how to talk to babies
Perhaps current research can settle this debate.
One study looked at interactions between more than 2,200 infants and their mothers, with the researchers using head-turning, central fixation, and eye-tracking to determine the babies’ preferences.
With central fixation, they showed the infants a monitor with a picture of a checkerboard and then played either infant-directed speech or adult-directed speech, tracking how long the infant looked at the image. The monitor displayed a similar image for eye-tracking, but a remote corneal-reflection eye tracker measured eye movements. With the head-turning method, the infants were shown a flashing light to their left or right, after which the researchers played infant-directed and adult-directed speech and tracked how quickly the babies turned their heads. The study results provided evidence that babies prefer infant-directed speech, and it is beneficial for their language development.
Another study focused on mothers’ timbre of voice, providing further insight into this phenomenon. Timbre refers to the sound quality of a voice or instrument. In other words, it’s a way to describe a sound. For example, words such as bright, brassy, and shrill are different timbres.
Studying mother-child interactions, the researchers found that mothers shift the timbre of their voice when speaking to infants, and this is true across multiple languages. The study suggests it’s something mothers do naturally, even unconsciously. According to the researchers, the shifts in timbre allow infants to discriminate and recognize a variety of sounds, thus helping them in their language development.
Why babies prefer infant-directed speech
These two studies tell us that babies like infant-directed speech, that mothers do it naturally, and that when they do, they shift the timbre of their voice. Overall, infant-directed speech is likely more interesting to listen to, and that’s probably why infants prefer it. It is more colorful, more involved, and easier to grasp.
If you think about it, you’d find it really difficult to learn a new language if those around you spoke quickly and monotonously and used long, drawn-out sentences. It would take a lot more focus than if they slowed down, spoke more clearly than they usually would, used a variety of intonations, and cut down on sentence length. It’s the same for babies.
They are new to this language thing, and when we give them plenty of help by using infant-directed speech, it makes it easier for them to learn. They appreciate it, and the good news is that it’s not that hard to do. It comes naturally to us as parents—it’s almost as if it is an adaptive evolutionary trait we have inherited.
When I had my babies, infant-directed speech definitely came naturally to me. Something about their sweet little faces and coos just made me use sing-songy, exaggerated speech. I never had to research this or learn it; it just happened. How great is it that we seem to already know what our babies need from us and that our babies seem to be designed to elicit the right interactions from us? It certainly puts my mind at ease, helping me trust my parenting instincts and confidently interact with my baby.
So, the takeaway is that baby talk is a good thing. You may want to branch out from the typical “goo-goo. ga-ga,” but other than that, it’s beneficial for infant language development. Slowing down your speech, talking a bit louder, using shorter sentences, varying your intonation, exaggerating sounds, and adding facial expression are all things that come naturally when talking to babies and help them learn to speak.
They hold their attention, help them catch on, and generally facilitate their language acquisition. This might clash with opinions you’ve heard in the past, but current research supports it. So, if you want to help your infant along in their language development, don’t shy away from baby talk. Embrace it because it’s fun and natural, and your baby likes it.