Is baby talk good for my baby?

Baby talk, or infant-directed speech, is a way of talking to very young children that is different from how adults talk to other adults.

Many cultures in the world, but not all, have a special way of talking to babies and young children. Sometimes families worry about using baby talk, because they think it will slow their child’s language learning.

But they don’t need to worry. Baby talk probably helps babies to learn words and to learn about how speaking and listening work. How?

In baby talk style,

  • adults often use higher voices, have more ups and downs in the pitch of their speech and speak more slowly
  • adults exaggerate their words and sounds
  • sounds might be longer, clearer and more distinct from each other, and
  • there are lots of repetitions and fun forms of words (e.g. “doggy” etc. in English)
  • adults usually say something to the child, then wait, as if the child might answer.

These changes probably help babies to give their attention to the person speaking, to be interested in what they hear, and to have a good feeling about speaking and listening. These things might help them learn about words and sounds, and how people speak and listen in turns.

Studies show that baby talk helps children learn more words in their languages. Children whose parents speak to them one-on-one in baby talk style learn more words than children whose parents don’t use baby talk as often. So, baby talk is good for babies!

(Reference: Ramírez-Esparza, N., García-Sierra, A., & Kuhl, P. K. (2014). Look who’s talking: speech style and social context in language input to infants are linked to concurrent and future speech development. Developmental science, 17(6), 880-891)

In the Australian language, Warlpiri:

  • there is a special baby talk style to use with very young children
  • in this style adults use fewer consonant sounds (e.g. t, n, r, l) than in adult-to-adult speech
  • the first sound of a word might be left out, e.g. ngapa > apa (‘water’)
  • some kinship terms are put into one category, e.g. mother’s side relative, or father’s side relative
  • there are short forms for some relationship words.

(Reference: Laughren, Mary. (1984). Warlpiri baby talk. Australian Journal of Linguistics, 4(1), 73-88)

These features of baby talk in Warlpiri mean that the children move from learning fewer aspects to more aspects as they grow up. And they learn important family relationship information early in their lives. As the children grow older, less and less baby talk style is used.

Warlpiri children also learn hand signs from when they are very young. For example, they learn signs for relationships, for asking ‘what’s happening?’, for saying ‘no, nothing’. Later we’ll talk about the signs that children in this project are learning.

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