Quirks & Quarks

'Parentese' is not just baby talk. It boosts baby's language skills

Babies whose parents used the exaggerated speech style had a larger vocabulary by the age of 18 months.

This speech style helps parents and babies make conversation and grow their vocabulary

Babies whose parents spoke to them in 'parentese' had a vocabulary of 100 words at 18 months old. (Shutterstock)

If you're a parent, or if you've ever been a caregiver for children, there's a good chance you've used 'parentese' before.

It's the speaking style that adults use when talking to babies, characterized by a higher-pitched voice, long vowels, and slower tempo. Parents use it cultures around the world, often without adults even realizing it. 

Now a new study is showing that babies whose parents use more parentese end up with a bigger vocabulary and more conversational skills.

"It's much more than just pleasant sounding speech," lead author Naja Ferjan Ramírez told Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald.

Parentese is also more than just baby talk.

"It uses real words and correct grammar. Baby talk, on the other hand, can be just a combination of silly sounds and words that oftentimes uses incorrect grammar, so things like 'Your shoesie-woosies on your cutesy feetsy-weetsies'." 

Coaching Parents in Parentese

Ferjan Ramírez is with the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences, or I-LABS, at the University of Washington. Her team is trying to understand the benefits of 'parentese' for both parents and children.

Previous studies involving brain scans show that babies pay closer attention to words spoken in parentese than standard speech.

"We have known for quite a while that babies have a strong preference for parentese over standard speech," said Ferjan Ramírez. "It's this change in pitch that draws the baby's attention, that they know it's directed to them."

In a recent study — published in the journal PNAS — they investigated what happened when parents were coached to use more parentese on their children.

Researchers coached parents to use 'parentese' in different situations, like at the grocery store. (Shutterstock/Monkey Business)

The researchers recruited 70 families with 6-month old babies, and sent the families small recorders to record both parent and infant speech over two consecutive days. 

"Over the weekend when the babies were 6, 10, 14, and 18 months old, these recorders record everything that the baby hears and says, and that allows us to measure both parental and child language as the families go about their weekends as usual," said Ferjan Ramírez

Surprisingly, all the families were already using some sort of parentese, some without even realizing that they were doing it. Ferjan Ramírez then took 48 families and coached them on how to maximize their use of parentese, by using it more deliberately, and in a variety of situations.

A 'helpful cue' for babies to identify words

When the babies were 18 months old, the researchers took one final recording of the listening environment. Babies whose parents had been coached to use parentese had vocabularies of 100 words, whereas the babies whose parents weren't coached had a vocabulary of 60 words. 

What we're trying to do here is to tell them, 'Look this is a good thing. And it has all kinds of benefits.'-  Naja Ferjan Ramírez

They also saw a vast improvement in the babies' conversational skills.

"The third thing that we saw, which we were very excited about, was many more back and forth exchanges between parents and children. And we know of course that back and forth exchanges during this time in development are critical for the development of children's language abilities," said Ferjan Ramírez.

Babies were shown having more back and forth talk with their parents at the age of 18 months after parents were coached to speak to them in 'parentese.' (Shutterstock/Dragon Images)

Ferjan Ramírez believes that parentese works as a language tool because the slow tempo and the exaggerated vowel sounds can help make it very clear which words are important.

"Using more parentese gives babies a chance to hear the language related to what they are thinking about in that moment," she said. "In parentese the word boundaries tend to be clear, and there is also quite a bit of repetition so that can be a helpful cue for babies to identify words."

The study results show that, even though all the babies had some exposure to parentese, by making parents aware of the benefits, they could then use it in a more deliberate way.

"There were many parents who came into this intervention thinking that using parentese was not necessarily good, that it sounded silly and that they were being judged on the street if they talk to their baby like this," she said.

"But what we're trying to do here is to tell them, 'Look this is a good thing. And it has all kinds of benefits. And so please do continue.'"

Written and produced by Amanda Buckiewicz


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