Why you need to switch from infant-speak to ‘parentese’ if you want your tot to learn language faster

Mother playing with her adorable baby
Mother playing with her adorable baby
AJ Watt/Getty Images

Can you smile for mama, nana ? Yes, you c-a-a-a-n. Yes, you c-a-a-a-n. What a clever girl you are! Such a clever girl! “Who’s a clever girl? Yes, you’re a clever girl!”

If that’s the way you speak to your baby, consider yourself fluent in parentese and give yourself a pat on the back. Parentese is the language of speaking to babies – a method of using exaggeration, repetition and high-pitched delivery to communicate with your little ones. It involves using real words instead of the goo-goo-ga-ga version of infant-speak – and according to a new scientific study, it’s the best thing you can do to aid the development of your baby’s vocabulary.

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The study, conducted by the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences (I-Labs) at the University of Washington in the United States, examined how coaching parents in the value of parentese has a profound effect on children’s development.

The researchers involved 71 families, 48 of which were taught how to speak parentese to their children. By 18 months, the babies who’d listened to parentese had a 100-word vocabulary. In comparison the babies who didn’t hear parentese had an arsenal of 60 words.

“We now think parentese works because it’s a social hook for the baby brain – its high pitch and slower tempo are socially engaging and invite the baby to respond,” said Patricia Kuhl, I-Labs’ co-director and professor of speech and hearing sciences. Coaching parents gave them a measurement tool, “almost like a Fitbit for parentese”, said Naja Ferjan Ramirez, an assistant professor of linguistics at Washington University.

WHAT EXACTLY IS PARENTESE?

 It’s “a near-universal speaking style distinguished by higher pitch, slower tempo, and exaggerated intonation”, the study says. Professor Sarah Skeen, a speech and language therapist and associate professor in the department of global health at Stellenbosch University, offers an example of parentese: “Hellooo, cutie Busi, are you a cutie baaaby, Busi? “Are you wearing a hat today, cutie baby? Is that a nice hat you have, Busi? What a niiiice hat you have, Baby Busi.” Over the years it’s been observed that this speaking style is common in varying culture and language groups.

There’s nothing wrong with baby talk – the goo-goo-ga-ga variety – but research has shown that parentese helps babies to learn language in the long run, Skeen adds, and also how to take turns in conversation.

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Cape Town speech therapist Orla Johnson says while both baby talk and parentese are spoken in high-pitched and sing-song voices, parentese tends to be slower and more repetitive. “The main difference is baby talk often includes a lot of silly noises, made-up words, and words that are deliberately pronounced incorrectly. For parentese, real language – words and sentences – are used. However the sentences tend to be shorter and many of them are phrased as questions,” Johnson says.

LEARN THE LINGO

Here are tips you can use to ensure your child has the upper hand in language development.

  • Use real words and sentences with babies from day one – there’s only limited benefit to baby talk. By talking to your baby about the things they see and what’s going on around them, they’ll start to pick up vocabulary and other components of language.
  • Being spoken to, especially while being held or when baby and parent are looking at each other face-to-face, helps with bonding and develops a baby’s pre-verbal language skills.
  • Remember babies aren’t adults, so you don’t need to speak to them as if they’re grown-ups. Talking to them slowly, with simple words and lots of repetition is very important.
  • One of the most important things you can do is to read to your baby, even from the day they’re born.
  • Limit the amount of time you spend on your phone when you’re around your baby. When you’re on your phone you’re less likely to be paying attention to your child, speaking and playing with them and also noticing if something is wrong.
  • Talk about all the things you’re doing while you’re doing them (for example, your actions when you’re changing their nappy, preparing their food, even driving a car).
  • Sing to your baby – a real voice is preferable to a recording

WHEN TO START TALKING TO YOUR TOT

Johnson says babies can benefit from hearing words when they’re still in the womb. A fetus starts to hear from the second trimester and becomes familiar with noises that make it through to the womb, such as their mother’s voice and heartbeat.

“Babies are born being able to recognise the voice of their mother,” she explains. “Parents should continue to talk to their baby from the day they’re born, while being held in the early weeks, and then more time face-to-face as their baby becomes more alert.” Skeen says while speaking to babies stimulates their brains and helps them to develop their language skills, hearing their mother’s voice also helps them feel calm.

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HOW DO YOU SPEAK PARENTESE?

Parentese often happens automatically when adults speak to babies, and would sound a little nuts spoken in any other context. It’s characterised by a high-pitched, sing-song voice which Johnson says catches the attention of the baby.

“The higher pitch is more likely to get and keep a baby’s attention than deeper voices and lower-pitched sounds,” she tells us. “Babies also tune in to the rhythm of the speech, and over time this helps them to learn where each word starts and ends, as well as the intonational patterns of the language they’re hearing.”

Skeen says it’s also important to try to speak to your baby in a warm and gentle way. “You should look at your baby and smile at them often, especially when they’re trying to communicate with you using eye contact, gurgling, babbling, or making other little sounds,” she advises.

LONG-TERM BENEFITS

Early language skills are important because they provide building blocks for babies’ later ability to read, write and develop friendships and relationships with people, Skeen says. “This isn’t only during childhood, but also throughout their lives. So, while it may seem like you’re just speaking to your baby in a funny baby voice, you’re actually helping them to lay a foundation for success in school and later life.”

Johnson says infants learn a lot about language before they even say their first word. In their all-important first year, babies will learn to identify facial expressions by making eye contact, and by six months most of them will start recognising another person’s emotions from the tone of their voice. “Babies will start to recognise and attempt to say the consonant and vowel sounds used in the language they hear. They’ll start to understand turn-taking in conversations and recognise different voices,” Johnson explains.

“Older babies will start to understand simple commands, like ‘no’. All of these are the foundation skills of language.”