More than baby talk: Why you need to learn to speak ‘parentese’

Next time you talk to your baby (or someone else’s!) pay close attention to the way you speak. Chance are you naturally fall into a style of language known as “parentese” – slow, clear, high-pitched speech with exaggerated vowels. While we know from decades of research how important parentese is for babies’ language development, according to a new study it’s a skill we can all get better at it.

The research, published in the journal Developmental Science, found that babies of parents who were coached in how to use parentese at age six months were more verbal by 14 months.

“Most parents know that the amount of language their child hears is important. What we shared with them through coaching is that how they talk to their baby may matter even more,” said lead author Naja Ferjan Ramírez. “We explained to them the research behind parentese, and made sure they were aware of the connection between their language input, and their speaking style in particular, and their baby’s language outcomes.”

As part of the study, the research team used audio recordings of participating families’ typical weekends. Mums and dads were randomly assigned to either a “coaching” group or a control group. Both groups were recorded, but only the coaching group received individual training around their language-interaction with their little ones.

Parentese, you see, isn’t just “baby talk”. It’s not silly sounds or nonsense words like “cutesie-wootsie”. Instead, parentese is fully grammatical speech involving real words, elongated vowels and exaggerated tones of voice.

And when mums and dads were taught how to speak parentese more effectively, the results were clear.

Between six and 14 months, parents in the coached group increased the amount of speech directed to their bubs and increased their parentese by 15 per cent, compared to seven per cent in the control group.

Babies of parents who were coached, babbled on average in 43 per cent of the recordings compared to 30 per cent in the control group. And, by 14 months, bubs in the coached group produced significantly more words.

The results are important and exciting because they show that not only does parentese have an impact, but we can also get better at it.

“Language learning can be ignited during daily routines, such as diaper changes, grocery shopping or sharing a meal,” said Ms Ferjan Ramírez. “Everyday moments and daily interactions really matter, and parents can create more such moments and be more intentional about them.”

The key takeaway, she says, is that language is malleable.

“Parents are a child’s first and most important teachers, and we are happy to show they can have an immediate positive effect on the growth of their child’s language. Early language skills are important predictors of a child’s learning to read and of their success in school, and parents can directly affect their child’s outcomes in this way.”


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