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.