We’ve probably all been guilty of falling into the silly, saccharine tone of baby talk at some point, be it to a family member or pet. But the question is, is this just an irritating reflex we’ve picked up or is it actually helping our children? Well, research would suggest that certain forms of baby talk do in fact aid in infant speech development.
This ‘useful’ baby talk is the lilting, sing-song type called ‘motherese’ or ‘parentese’. Although it has been shown that using parentese means we actually speak less clearly to babies than we would to an adult, researchers believe that this is ok because it is not the actual words that are important but the intonation. The tone is thought to hold the attention of babies, convey emotion and help them learn how to ‘decorate’ sentences. And, more than that, babies enjoy listening to the rhythmic quality of baby talk, even if we often find it maddening. It is encouraged that you have full conversations with babies in parentese, repeating back their own attempts at language to encourage the normal give-and-take of conversation.
Parentese is not just for children however, as it is considered to be a universally comprehensible form of language. A study in Psychological Science found that when recordings of English speakers using baby talk were played to a tribe of non-English speakers in Ecuador, they could tell with 70% accuracy whether the tone was approving or disapproving. In fact, parentese is found in almost all cultures and languages and is not even unique to humans.
In a study for Ethology, researchers discovered that rhesus monkeys also use baby talk, with mothers tending to use more excitement and sounds called ‘girney’ with babies than adults. Oddly, it is other babies, not their own, that they use this with and it is thought to encourage a bond to form between the group. Still, this evidence from our relatives suggests a useful, evolved behaviour in animals to teach communication.
This all sounds pretty positive, right? Well, there is such a thing as ‘bad’ baby talk. Cutesy, nonsense sounds may be adorable but do infants more harm than good. Think of it like talking to someone who has a different native language and only a rudimentary grasp on your own. Why would you make your words less understandable to someone who already can’t understand you? ‘Good’ baby talk involves actual words with a high pitch and emphasis on different syllables. This is supported by the way our pets respond to baby talk. Studies have found that children and dogs are both more likely to respond if we speak in a high pitched voice.
So, if you naturally fall into the sing-song lilt of parentese then keep it up. But don’t force it if you can’t stand the tone, as normal speech won’t harm children. Either way, using varied, longer sentences with proper grammar will help language skills, even if a baby won’t quite understand.