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We automatically adjust our pitch and rhythm when we talk to babies — but should we also use simplified language and made up words?

Talking to an teeny-tiny infant — one who's clearly not yet capable of deciphering the meaning of the sounds you utter — may, at first, seem a little unnatural, particularly, research shows, for new fathers. Make no mistake, though. Your child's language-acquisition skills are supercharged during their first three years of life, and how you communicate with them during this time makes a long-term developmental difference. 

 

Even if your baby can't yet understand what you're saying, they will:

  • Get used to the rhythm of your language. 
  • Start mastering certain sounds, which they'll start practicing goo-goo-ba-ba style all too soon. 
  • Learn that language is a powerful communication tool and that sounds have meanings that people react to — and that, by producing sounds, they can get you to respond as well. 
  • Over time, allow your baby to recognize sounds you repeat a lot.
So, talking to your baby, starting with the very earliest newborn phase, is important. How should you talk to your baby, though? Should you use the simpler and sometimes grammatically-incorrect linguistic structure so many parents naturally gravitate towards, and go with lots of cutesy, made-up onomatopeic words (like "moo-moo" for cow, or "choo-choo" for train)? Should you change your tone of voice to be sing-songy and high-pitched? Or is it better to talk to your baby just like you would with an adult, to encourage fluent speech sooner?

It's an interesting topic that many parents wonder about, so let's dive right in!

Research: Parents automatically adopt 'baby talk', but what do infants themselves prefer?

So, research shows that babies develop linguistic preferences pretty early on. Even within the first few months of their lives, infants start to like their mothers' voices better than those of other women, for instance, as well as often favoring their mothers' voices over their fathers', probably because mothers have generally been shown to be more responsive to infant babble, and this response is stimulating. (Fathers — take this as a clue to talk to your sons and daughters more!) Babies also develop a preference for their own native language in the first couple of months!

Parents in many cultures automatically adopt a higher-pitched, sing-songy voice as well as simplifying their language when they talk to their infants, and research has demonstrated that this is for good reason — babies seem to prefer "baby talk" or "motherese" over adult-style conversation, as proven by the fact that this kind of babbling holds their attention for much longer. 

That's not necessarily because of what you actually say, however, as one study showed. That is, your baby doesn't have an inherent preference for simplified grammar and reduced vocabulary. What babies prefer, instead, is the positive, happy, tone associated with "baby talk". This matches findings that babies also like happy faces better than unhappy ones. 

The conclusion? You don't need to simplify your language to make your baby happy, but you do need to speak in a happy voice. 

Should you simplify your language and resort to 'baby words' when talking to your child?

Young kids probably won't understand you if you go around quoting Cicero or Shakespeare, but you know exactly what we mean. You just have to look around your local playground to find examples of "baby words" — "Do you need to go wee-wee?", "Look at the cute doggie!", and so on. 

Research has established that talking to your young child, from baby to toddler, lots and in a positive-sounding tone. But science also tells us that a larger vocabulary is one of the most important predictors of later academic achievement, including learning to read with more ease. What's more, knowing more words will allow your child to express themselves with greater precision. That, in turn, also allows them to advocate for their own needs better.

To help your child expand their vocabulary, it's not just important to talk to them lots, but also to use a wide variety of words yourself. So don't dumb it down too much — teach your child synonyms when they're ready, as well as the proper words for things, rather than infantilized versions of the same. Whenever your child asks what a word you use means, answer their question to help them add it to their vocabulary bank. And if your child doesn't get most of what you're saying, you can tone it down a bit. 

You might like to know that vocabulary tends to explode past the toddler stage, but also that it's strongly influenced by the words a child has heard others use earlier in life. That means, roughly, that the words you use when speaking to your child when they're a toddler get filed into their memory for later use, and that availing yourself to more complex vocabulary will help your kid down the road even if they don't adopt the new words you introduce them to right away. 

Talking to newborns: The for-dummies version

I was one of those people for whom monologuing at my new baby, when I knew they could neither understand nor respond, didn't exactly come naturally. I know more of you are out there, so I thought I'd share a tip that really helped me at the time — simply go around telling your baby what you're doing, whether you're directly interacting with them or just going about your daily tasks. 

That could be something like, "It's time for a bath! I'm going to make sure the water is just right for you — not too hot or too cold — and then we'll get you nice and clean". Or, "Oh, that's the sound of the doorbell! Aunt Agnes is popping round to see us." 

You're practicing your communication with your tiny human, and at the same time, they're learning about the power of words. You're in this great adventure together, and soon enough, you'll learn to understand each other just fine.

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