Have you ever noticed that when you talk to a baby, your voice gets high, and you speak slowly as you draw words out? Your expression changes, too. You open your eyes wide and smile. We do it unconsciously because babies respond positively to it, and it’s called “parentese.” But what is parentese and why is it important?
What Is Parentese?
Parentese should not be confused with “baby talk.” Baby talk is when a person changes the way that they say words — essentially using nonsense words that are made up. An example of the difference between parentese and baby talk is saying, “baaaanaaaaana” versus, “nanna.”
While parentese itself sounds like a made-up word, it is used in academic research articles, and research has demonstrated that using parentese helps children develop language skills.
Why Is Parentese Important?
A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences supports the use.
“We believe parentese makes language learning easier because of its simpler linguistic structure and exaggerated sounds,” Patricia Kuhl, I-LABS co-director and professor of speech and hearing sciences at the University of Washington told Science Daily “But this new work suggests a more fundamental reason. We now think parentese works because it’s a social hook for the baby brain — its high pitch and slower tempo are socially engaging and invite the baby to respond.”
Some parents will adopt names for certain things because of the way their child says them. For example, my son called grapes, “geeps.” We made the mistake of calling them geeps, too. Using baby talk can cause delays in proper speech development. Using an incorrect word over and over reinforces to the child that is the correct way to say it. When a child hears a word spoken properly, they may have no idea what the person is talking about.
On the other hand, using parentese actually helps children learn how to talk. The characteristics of parentese are high pitched voice, drawing out the vowels, using a sing-song voice accompanied by a happy expression.
Another fascinating thing is that it is used in languages all over the world.
“When it comes to speaking to babies, volume and context are crucial,” Katy Echevarria, MS, CCC-SLP, Executive Director of Kreative Kids Therapy tells Parentology. “Don’t be shy – describe everything as you are doing it. Speak clearly and make eye contact. You simply cannot speak – or sing! – too much to a baby.”
So, how can you organically use parentese without falling into baby talk?
Echevarria shares further tips on how parents should talk to their babies to encourage the development of speech. “Use the ‘real names’ of things. Instead of saying ‘bow wow’ when referring to a dog, use its proper name. It may not be as cute, but it facilitates speech development. Make eye contact when you speak or sing to your baby. Be informative. Describe mealtime, bathtime, and playtime out loud.”