Why is it that adults become all of a sudden fluent in “motherese” when there’s a baby in the proximity?
When you find yourself in the company of young children, be it your kids, a friend’s, or just the cute baby in her mother’s arms that you crossed at the coffee shop, chances are you have experienced for yourself that automatic and hard to ignore temptation to engage in the caricaturized “baby-talk” with them. What has science got to say about this phenomenon? And beyond its cuteness, is it actually beneficial for your baby’s linguistic and socio-emotional development?
When adults talk to babies and pre-linguistic infants, no matter what part of the world they are in or what language they use (anthropologists have found it native communities from Sri Lanka to Siberia), their speech gravitates towards using some particular features of what is formally known as “infant-directed speech”. This form of addressing infants is characterized by being an emotionally-charged and melodic tone with a higher pitch than usual. Vowels are stretched out, sentences are simplified, and facial gestures and emotional intonation is stressed. These characteristics of baby-talk are particularly emphasized by adults when they are addressing very young babies, and then naturally decrease as the child grows and his or her language skills develop.
Actually, developmental psychologists assert that when the surrounding adults engage in baby-talk with infants, this is actually beneficial to their development in various ways! We have prepared an overview of some of them.
Benefits of using “infant-directed speech”:
- Attracts the baby’s attention. Usually baby-talk is accompanied by expressive movements of the face, heightened body language, and other attention-gaining techniques
- Fosters linguistic development. Because it involves hyper-articulation, shortening and simplifying phrases, and vowel exaggeration, using baby-talk helps babies locate the boundaries of each word inside a sentence, and learn some auditory patterns specific to the language used
- Social development. This type of interaction aids babies in understanding and distinguishing emotional cues inside of speech. Researchers have found that when adults listened attentively to a foreign language, they were better at identifying the speaker’s emotion when he/she spoke in baby-talk compared to the normal range and tone of voice
- Shows affection. The soothing and friendly sounds of baby-talk can help to foster a positive relationship between parent and infant
In 2003 neuroscientists from the University of Washington observed the link between maternal speech clarity and infant speech perception (6-12 months old) in an experiment, and discovered that moms who insisted on each vowel had babies who did better on the speech perception test, even after controlling for socioeconomic aspects (like maternal level of education). So, the pros of using baby-talk with your infant go well beyond how heart-melting it might be to talk with a baby, the science is pretty consistent about it!