Nix the baby talk: Study shows ‘parentese’ boosts infant language development

WASHINGTON — The next time you interact with a baby, pay close attention to your speech.

Research shows a little exaggeration and a bit of repetition can have a big impact on language development.

A recent study published in the journal Developmental Science found that babies of parents who were coached in parentese — a type of talk that, compared to standard speech, uses a higher pitch, a slower tempo, a more exaggerated intonation and acoustically exaggerated vowels — babbled more and used more words by the time they were 14 months old, compared to infants whose parents didn’t receive parentese training.

The study, conducted by the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences (I-LABS), builds on previous findings in early language learning.

“We have known for years and years … that children who hear more parentese have higher vocabularies as toddlers,” said Naja Ferjan Ramirez, a research scientist at I-LABS and the lead author on the study.

“The biggest question that we asked in this study was whether parental language is malleable.”

Turns out, it is.

For the study, parents of infants from varying socioeconomic backgrounds were assigned to either a control group or an intervention group. All parents recorded what their infants heard and said over a two-day period at 6 months, 10 months and 14 months of age.

However, parents in the intervention group received coaching and feedback on parentese, and as a result, Ramirez said they used it more.

Different from baby talk, which Ramirez said is “typically a combination of silly sounds and words that often use incorrect grammar,” parentese utilizes real words and fully grammatical sentences, just with a slower, more exaggerated pace — plus repetition.

“So you would say something like, ‘Are you eating a banana? Ba-naaa-na, ba-naaa-na,’” Ramirez demonstrated.

“So hearing the same word over and over again as the baby is looking at a banana is actually very helpful. … And the hypothesis is that hearing the clearest possible vowels allows babies to learn the sounds of language more easily than if they just hear standard speech.”

Part of the coaching process for the intervention group focused on helping parents identify times throughout the day where they could incorporate more parentese into the regular routine, whether in the car or on the diaper-changing table. Ramirez said most parents use parentese without even thinking about it, but finding more ways to integrate it into everyday interactions can have an even bigger impact on the child’s language development in infancy and later in life.

“Try to use it in different moments … Typically, the moments are when we are completely focused on what the baby is doing, and we talk about what the baby is looking at and what the baby is doing using parentese,” Ramirez said.

“Sooner or later, they will really start to listen to us. They will listen to the sounds we are producing while we’re looking at the objects we’re naming and that’s how language-learning happens.”

Get fluent: Ramirez demonstrates parentese, discusses study

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