Speaking “parentese” with your baby, also known as “baby talk”, has been shown to enhance children’s linguistic abilities as they get older.
Although using parentese has been associated with improved linguistic outcomes in children for some time, why exactly this is was unknown until recently. Previously thought to facilitate language learning as it simplifies linguistic structure and exaggerates sounds, new research suggests a more fundamental reason. Instead, researchers now think that parentese accelerates language learning by acting as a social hook for a baby’s brain- its high pitch and slower tempo more socially engaging and thus inviting for the child to respond.
To find this out, researchers from the University of Washington compared the linguistic abilities of babies whose parents had undergone “parentese” or “baby talk” coaching sessions,with those who had not. To do this, they gave each participating baby a lightweight recorder to wear on four separate weekends at ages 6, 10, 14 and 18 months old. These recorders then captured both parent and infant interactions over two days, allowing researchers to measure parents’ usage of parentese, parent-child conversational turns and the rate at which the babies responded vocally.
Of the families involved in the study, 48 were randomly assigned to receive coaching, which provided guidance and feedback on parentese communication strategies, as well as encouragement to use language as a part of daily routines. Those in the coaching groups also learned about the cognitive and social benefits of using parentese with their children early on.
In the end, the researchers found that parents who had undergone coaching sessions not only tended to use more parentese with their babies, but also that their babies tended to respond more too. Moreover, they found that between 14 and 18 months of age, babies from coached families tended to produce words, such as “banana” or “light” almost twice as much as children to parents who had not received any training. The researchers also found that children whose parents had been coached tended to have a vocabulary of around 100 words by 18 months old, compared to just 60 words among those in the control group.
Ferjan Ramirez, an author of the study said, “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.”