Language learning can be a matter of much concern for new parents, who often worry about what their baby is saying, how they’re saying it, and when. With previous research suggesting that frequent verbal engagement with babies can boost vocabulary and reading comprehension, this preoccupation is not without merit. But even those parents who aren’t too fixated on baby’s first word may in fact be improving their offspring’s language, even if they’re not aware of it.
A form of speech dubbed “parentese” may be a key factor in improving language learning in infants, a new study in PNAS has suggested. Naja Ferjan Ramírez and colleagues from the University of Washington examined the distinctive form of sing-song speech often aimed at babies, finding that it improved conversation between parents and their children and even boosted language development.
It’s important to note that parentese is not the same as baby talk: it’s less “googoo gaga” and more an exaggerated form of normal speech. So rather than the nonsense noises that usually characterise baby talk, parentese is defined by the higher pitch, slower tempo and exaggerated intonation of the speaker, a tone many of us have adopted around children without even realising it.
The researchers assigned 71 families with typically-developing six month old babies to one of two conditions. In the coaching condition, parents were given feedback on their use of language, speaking style, volume of speech and parent-child turn-taking by a linguistic coach. These families were explicitly told about parentese and how to use it to engage children, and were played audio samples from recordings of their own interactions with their children to highlight particularly good uses of parentese and turn-taking. Language milestones were also discussed: when to expect infants to say their first word or use word combinations, for example.
The coach also gave the families “Vroom cards”, which give information about how to promote language during normal social interactions, and age-appropriate books. Families in the other condition received no coaching.
Families provided recordings of themselves talking to and with their children at six, ten, fourteen and eighteen months of age, and at the eighteen month mark filled in a survey designed to assess language and communication development.
As expected, the coaching made a big difference. Parents who had been given extra guidance both significantly increased their use of parentese and their level of conversational turn-taking compared to those who had not. Their children also saw the benefit, showing a greater increase in vocalisations between six and eighteen months than the control group. They also had larger vocabularies overall at eighteen months than kids in the control group, suggesting that positive changes in the way parents communicate with their children are not temporary but durable and long-lasting.
So why is parentese such a successful mode of communication? A dramatic change in pitch may have something to do with it, as may the exaggerated facial expressions that often accompanies such speech. These “make the speaker sound happy”, the team says, holding infants’ attention and allowing them to take in more words and meanings than if they were distracted.
Understanding the benefit of taking turns in conversation was also a large part of the coaching condition, and this social element may be a thus-far neglected explanation for the success of parentese. Social context is a crucial part of language learning — and if parentese increases social interaction, it follows that language learning may also improve.
The results also have some pleasing practical ramifications. Parentese was used by all of the families in the study — it was a basic feature of child-parent communication, which will come as no surprise to anybody who’s spent much time with small children.
But the majority of the parents involved in the study had no idea what exactly parentese did for their infants’ language development, and were not aware of when they were using it or in what contexts. Being aware of parentese and its multiple positive qualities may be very useful indeed for families who are hoping to improve their children’s language development.