Oopsie whoopsie! Baby talk is actually good for babies

This post is also available in Dutch.

Many of us are guilty of it: as soon as we see a baby, we start speaking in high-pitched gibberish. Turns out this may actually help babies learn.

The seemingly over-the-top way adults talk to babies is designed to get their attention and help them learn language.
Image courtesy of Pixabay (CC0).

Baby talk, also known by the technical terms ‘motherese’ or ‘parentese’, and Infant-Directed Speech (IDS), is that particular singsongy and exaggerated way adults talk to babies.

When compared to normal or Adult-Directed Speech (ADS), IDS has a higher pitch, say, similar to the pitch of children; there are more changes in pitch, giving it a rollercoaster quality; it makes use of simple sentences where certain words or sounds are repeated (e.g., oopsie whoopsie); the pauses are longer between sentences, words and even syllables; and vowels are over pronounced (i.e., hyperarticulated) and exaggerated. Here’s an example:

 

It can be annoying to hear other adults speak motherese, but chances are you do it yourself when you catch a glimpse of chubby baby cheeks— but don’t worry, it’s completely normal. In fact, IDS exists in almost every language and culture, and for good reason: scientific evidence suggests that IDS can actually help babies develop their language and communication skills. But how?

Babies prefer IDS over normal speech

First of all, babies seem to prefer IDS over normal speech. Research has shown that babies pay attention to IDS longer than to ADS, even at birth. This makes sense: the changes in pitch and more (positive) emotional tones of IDS are bound to capture babies’ attention, as do the exaggerated facial expressions that tend to accompany it.

IDS helps babies learn

Any elementary school teacher knows that the first step to teaching children is getting their attention. But is that all IDS does? Or does it actually help babies learn language? Would it not be better to treat babies like adults and not “dumb down” our language for them?

Several studies have found that the exaggerated features of IDS might actually help babies learn to hear the difference between speech sounds and to be able to pick out words from the continuous stream of speech. (For more on how babies process speech, read this blog post in Dutch.) One study based on home audio recordings found that the more IDS parents used with their 11-14-month old babies, the more the babies babbled back and, in turn, the more words they knew by the age of two.

Baby talk is for babies…

The exceptional qualities of IDS have led some to believe that it is an instinctive behavior that humans evolved over thousands of years. Indeed, cross-cultural studies have shown that it is practically universal (with a few exceptions), and that monkeys might even do it, too!

However, there is one limitation. IDS can be particularly helpful at the beginning stages of language learning, before the meanings of the words are known. As IDS expert Anne Fernald says, during these early years “the melody IS the message.” However, as the experiment shown in the video below clearly illustrates, the actual message becomes more important as children get older:

 

…and not for pets

Although IDS is similar to the way we tend to speak to pets or even foreigners (i.e., Foreigner-Directed Speech, FDS), studies have shown that each of these speech styles has unique characteristics geared towards its particular audience. For instance, although both IDS and FDS have hyperarticulated vowels, IDS is higher in pitch and has more positive affect than FDS because these aspects help grab babies’ attention. However, compared to how people talk to pets, IDS has more hyperarticulation of vowels, which helps babies learn language— after all, we can’t teach our dogs to talk, right…?

 

To find out more about language learning in babies:

https://www.ted.com/talks/patricia_kuhl_the_linguistic_genius_of_babies/up-next

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IpHwJyjm7rM

 

This blog was written by Monica and edited by Jeroen and Marpessa.

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