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Baby talk: Learn how to talk to your baby

Father and baby - Credit: iStock.com/LiudmylaSupynska
Credit: iStock.com/LiudmylaSupynska

While parents and non-parents alike cringe at the “oochy woochy coochy coo” form of baby talk that Great Aunt Joan so loves to use while grabbing a handful of chubby baby cheek and laughing heartily, there is method in the madness.

Research shows that it is not just the use of simplified words like “tummy” and frequent repetition that makes baby talk attractive to babies, but rather the sounds of baby talk, as it has characteristic structure, rhythm and use of emotion.

While we’ve spent plenty of family dinners doing amusing imitations of Great Aunty Joan or rolling our eyes behind her back as she makes her signature ”coochy coos”, the fact is she is responding to baby cues and very naturally conversing in a way that uses exaggeration and expression.

It seems babies prefer this type of verbal interaction to other types of speech and it assists infant development in many ways. 

In fact, Professor Denis Burnham, Professor in Speech & Language Development, Western Sydney University says if we don’t follow Great Aunty Joan’s example we are not attending to the cues the baby is providing.

This exaggeration helps language development. When mothers use more exaggerated vowels in baby talk their babies are better able to distinguish speech sounds.
Professor Denis Burnham

Professor Burnham says compared with adult-directed speech, baby talk or infant directed speech has more emotion, irrespective of the actual words used.

He says that baby talk, which has also been called motherese or parentese, is the speech that parents, strangers and even older siblings use when they talk to infants.

It has three defining characteristics - higher pitch, greater emotional sound content and more exaggerated vowels.

“It has a higher pitch and more up-and-down patterns which attract infants’ attention. It also has more emotion,” Professor Burnham says.

“The pitch you can measure through acoustic measurement. The emotion is independent to the words being said. We measure it by filtering the speech electronically so that all you can hear are the ups and downs rather than the words and then ask people to rate how much emotion is in the voice. People consistently rate there to be more emotion in infant directed speech than adult directed speech.

“It also has more hyperarticulation which exaggerates the differences between sounds. The most common sounds that are measured are the vowel sounds.

“This exaggeration helps language development. When mothers use more exaggerated vowels in baby talk their babies are better able to distinguish speech sounds.”

While parents may fear that using baby talk will slow their child’s language development this is not proving to be the case.

There is no need to spend time thinking about what we should be talking to our children about to maximise the language experience - it seems the content doesn’t really matter either

Look Who’s Talking

Just like John Travolta in 1989’s Look Who’s Talking we can read little Mikey stock market listings as long as we’re looking him in the face, and using intonation and exaggeration.

The semantic content is not important. It is the physical characteristics of the speech. “Your tummy wummy is really sore” rather than “your stomach is hurting” doesn’t really matter. The important part is that you’re using the infant directed intonation and the exaggerated vowels.

Professor Burnham says parents naturally adjust how they communicate with their baby during their child’s first year to match their developmental level, and as they grow older adults continue to adjust the way they speak as the child’s language knowledge increases.

The parent and infant have a highly developed conversational dance, each responding to the nuances of the other’s speech.

“If parents or whoever is talking to the child is sensitive to the cues the child gives out then that person will use appropriate intonation, emotion, and speech exaggeration because the infant is very good at communicating what they need. And the cues the child gives out changes with the infant’s age,” he says.

“Infant directed speech changes across development. The way you talk to a six month old is different to the way you talk to a 12 month old.

“How mothers talk to their baby is automatically in synch with their baby’s preferences.”

Characteristics of baby talk

Turning again to the three characteristics of baby talk, it differs from other forms of exaggerated speech such as talking to pets and foreigners.

With pets you tend to use exaggerated emotion and pitch, but you don’t have exaggerated vowels and for foreigners you don’t have exaggerated pitch or raised emotion, but you do have exaggerated vowels.

“When you are talking to a pet you are trying to attract attention with pitch characteristics and portray emotion with emotional sounds in the speech but you’re not trying to teach the pet to talk because you’re not exaggerating vowels,” says Professor Burnham.

“When talking to a foreigner you’re not showing emotion and not playing with the pitch to attract attention but you are trying to teach them the structure of the English language by exaggerating the vowels.

“In the exaggeration of the vowels different languages have different vowel spaces so you exaggerate the vowels within the particular language you’re speaking.

“If a mother is bilingual she would use one set of vowels specifically for English and another for Spanish. It seems vowel hyper articulation seems to be focused towards teaching the vowels of the language. It’s a language teaching device.”

Top tips for talking to your baby

  • Pay attention to the child. Be face to face while talking and use eye contact.
  • Vary your pitch, use emotion and more exaggerated vowels. This will happen automatically if you pay close attention to your infant’s reaction. 
  • Be sensitive to the child’s cues and you will automatically adapt your use of language as the child grows.
  • Be wholly involved with talking to the child. Don’t be tempted to talk on the phone with somebody else and have an aside to the child.
  • Even though the child isn’t returning real words, aim for conversation runs. It seems that later vocabulary development is related to the amount of turn taking between the infant and the parent.
  • Both quality and quantity are important. But quality – talking with the child – is the most important.