Speaking to Babies in ‘Parentese’ Yields Surprising Results

A recent study which examined twenty-six babies has found surprising results regarding the way babies learn and use new vocabulary when spoken to in ‘parentese.’ Scientists outfitted 1-year-olds with clothes containing audio recorders. They recorded every bit of sound happening around the children for eight hours a day and four days straight. This came to 4,075 30-second intervals of recorded speech for each child.

After examining each and every 30-second clip of sound with a nifty piece of software called LENA (“language environment analysis”), and waiting a whole year the scientists were ready to share the shocking news. Speaking to a baby in baby talk, or more specifically, ‘parentese,’ is more important than just saying as many words as possible when it comes to language development.

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Although new parents commonly receive the advice to say as many words to a baby as possible in order to encourage its language growth, this isn’t the most ideal advice. When the babies were two years old the scientists asked the parents of the 26 children to fill out a questionnaire asking how many words their children knew. The evidence is quite clear:

2-year olds in families who spoke the most baby talk [parentese] in a one-on-one social context knew 433 words, on average, compared with the 169 words recognized by 2-year olds in families who used the least babytalk in one-on-one situations. The relationship between baby talk [parentese] and language development persisted across socioeconomic status and despite there only being 26 families in the study.

parentese man

Parentese is so easy anyone can do it! vimeo.com

While baby talk is nonsensical noise, parentese is like a dialect of normal speech. While speaking in parentese you still use normal words, the difference is that you use a high pitch voice and stretch out the vowels. An example of parentese picking up a baby and saying, “who’s my li-i-ttle baybee? Are you my littlee baybee? Yes, yoooou are!” You’re not saying “ooga booga,” you’re just being animated.

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The research also revealed that one-on-one conversations, especially in parentese, are extremely important.  Patricia Kuhl, co-author of the study and co-director of UW’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences confirms this point by explaining that,

what our analysis shows is that the prevalence of baby talk in one-on-one conversations with children is linked to better language development, both concurrent and future.

The reason parentese works so well is because of how well it engages babies.  Parentese allows a parent to keep their child’s attention by speaking in a slow happy voice, while still using actual words. Most importantly, especially in the case of a one-on-one conversation, parentese encourages a response and the consequent attempt at language formation. It is this constant attempt at verbal speech in the form of babbling that leads to the most rapid language learning in infants. As Kuhl concludes,

It’s not just talk, talk, talk at the child. It’s more important to work toward interaction and engagement around language. You want to engage the infant and get the baby to babble back. The more you get that serve and volley going, the more language advances.

Additional recent studies in the same vein as the one above have found that engaging in non-verbal language and learning multiple languages at the same time are also solid methods for improving vocabulary and language development in infants.

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If you are planning on taking parentese classes and implementing some of these techniques in an attempt to boost your child’s vocabulary, remember to read to them. Reading to and with children is possibly the single biggest factor in language development. Not to mention, it teaches them to love and enjoy literature.