As soon as babies are born they begin to learn language. They do this mainly through the back and forth interactions they have with adults. During these interactions some adults naturally use a type of ‘baby talk’ and some prefer to speak to babies in a more natural, adult-like manner. As a speech-language pathologist I’m often asked, which method is best for language development?
As part of an evidence-based profession my answer comes from understanding the research. This is a big topic, with many different studies dedicated to determining whether ‘baby talk’ is actually beneficial and with whom. In this article I am going to focus my answer on English speaking babies, whose speech and hearing are developing typically, using a small sample of articles to describe some of the research findings.
First, we should begin with a basic definition. Professionals in the field of language development generally use the term ‘infant-directed speech’ (IDS) to describe what the general population calls ‘baby talk’. Other terms used are ‘motherese’ or ‘parentese’. IDS is a specific way of speaking to babies characterized by a higher pitched voice, exaggerated pitch contours, vowel sounds being stretched out, a slower rate of speech, shorter phrases, longer pauses and repetition of words and phrases. In general this type of speech sounds very ‘sing-songy’.
Babies show a preference for IDS
Studies have shown that even very young infants prefer to listen to IDS as opposed to adult-directed speech (ADS). Infants prefer to look at the faces of those using IDS, as well as look longer at adults who are speaking to them using IDS. Brain scan imaging also shows more neural activity during IDS compared to ADS. Researchers from these studies highlight the importance of this finding stating that IDS may strengthen the neural pathways that later lead to language production and communication.
IDS influences social language development
Research shows IDS can help babies grasp the emotional tone of the speaker. In one study, 5-month old infants were able to respond with appropriate emotion (either positive or negative) to phrases only when spoken using IDS. Conversely, other studies show when mothers are depressed, and speak to babies in monotones with flat affect, these infants have a difficult time learning new associations from this type of speech.
IDS helps babies learn the speech sounds of their language
Before babies say words they have to learn all the different sounds in their language. Several studies have suggested that IDS can help them do this. Canadian researchers found that IDS helps babies learn to tell the difference between vowel sounds. A similar study found that moms who tended to “stretch out” their vowels more had babies who performed better on the speech perception tests. This link remained significant even after the researchers controlled for socioeconomic variables, like parental education level and occupation.
Improved word learning with IDS
Many researchers have shown that babies can learn words easier during IDS. In one study a group of infants heard a set of sentences spoken with ADS, and another group heard sentences spoken with IDS. Results showed infants in the IDS group were able to distinguish words more easily. Another study found 15-month old infants were better able to recognize new words when they appeared at the end of sentences, as is generally done when using IDS. Finally, when people use IDS it seems to exaggerate grammatical structures of a language, which may be beneficial to overall language learning.
Other things to consider
In general, the majority of research supports IDS as a great tool to help babies learn language, however there are other factors to look at. The most notable is that not all babies are exposed to IDS and go on to learn language normally, therefore IDS is not mandatory for language learning. Second, since babies are typically exposed to a combination of IDS and ADS, some researchers suggest it may be the combination that is most valuable to language learning. Third, one study showed the effects of IDS on facilitating word learning did not occur with older toddlers (27 months), suggesting there is a specific window for this type of talk to be helpful that goes away with age and/or as language development matures. Finally, researchers found infants’ preference for IDS is based on the positive affect associated with this type of speech. When affect is equated, (the emotional tone of IDS and ADS is the same) the preference for IDS disappears.
So what do I recommend to my clients?
- Taking all research into consideration it appears when mothers use IDS it can be helpful to their child’s language development. No study has found using IDS is harmful to babies’ speech. Therefore I recommend moms use IDS during natural interactions with their babies in daily routines.
- The research is unclear on what type of speech is best used by fathers, therefore I recommend dads use whatever type of talk makes them feel comfortable and allows for natural communication between themselves and their babies.
- Grammar and language are learned together, so no matter what type of talk you use with your baby, make sure the sentences are all grammatically correct.
- IDS appears to be most beneficial to young babies and toddlers, therefore switching back to ADS when children are older (around 2.5 yrs) or when they are consistently using full sentences is appropriate.
- Both parents should remember IDS is just one feature of communication. The best way for children to learn language is to engage in many back-and-forth, language-rich interactions with adults.
Acoustical Society of America. (2015). By avoiding baby talk, dads may help kids acquire language. Retrieved online May 27, 2015: https://news.wsu.edu/2015/05/19/by-avoiding-baby-talk-dads-may-help-kids-acquire-language/#.VXmUUmA0obA.
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