Study finds speaking baby talk to infants may help them learn real words

A new study suggests that when parents engage in baby talk to their infants, they may actually be helping babies learn to speak real words.

The study, conducted by researchers out of McGill University and the University of Florida, has found that mimicking the sound of a smaller vocal tract – like that used in baby talk or “infant-directed speech” – might clue babies in to how words should sound coming out of their own mouths.

According to the study, baby talk is when parents use proper words that are spoken in a higher pitch, at a slower speed and with exaggerated, singsong pronunciation. This not only appeals to the babies, researchers say, but also likely helps them learn to understand what the parents are saying.

“It seems to stimulate motor production of speech, not just the perception of speech,” Matthew Masapollo, study co-author and assistant professor at the University of Florida, said in a press release. “It’s not just goo-goo ga-ga.”

The findings were published Friday in the peer-reviewed Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research.

To conduct the study, researchers changed the frequency sounds of speech to mimic either an infant or adult vocal tract. They then tested how infants reacted to each sound by having them.

A small vocal tract, which is like what babies have, leads to more high-pitched sounds, while the large vocal tract of an adult creates a lower pitch, according to the study.

Researchers analyzed more than 60 babies’ responses and found that babies between the ages of six and eight months old “displayed a robust and distinct preference for speech with resonances specifying a vocal tract that is similar in size and length to their own.”

However, babies between they ages of four and six months did not have that preference, according to the study. Researchers say this suggests that the older babies’ ability to control their voices and make words out of babble could be what causes the infant-like sounds to be “more appealing.”

“This finding, together with data indicating that this preference is not present in younger infants and appears to increase with age, suggests that nascent knowledge of the motor schema of the vocal tract may play a role in shaping this perceptual bias, lending support to current models of speech development” the study’s authors wrote.

While baby talk may sound simple, study co-author and associate professor at McGill Linda Polka said it’s actually “accomplishing a lot” in regards to a baby’s development.

“We’re trying to engage with the infant to show them something about speech production,” Polka said in the release. “We’re priming them to process their own voice.”

While parents are sometimes discouraged from engaging in baby talk, the study reports that the patterns associated with that speaking style “could be a key component in helping babies make words” and should be continued with infants.

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