Written by Kristen Mascarenhas, M.D./M.P.H. candidate
with Carly Brand Levine, M.D., M.P.H.
Have you ever noticed your speech changes when you're around babies?
Perhaps you exaggerate some words, your pitch gets higher, or you simplify the words you use. These changes are collectively called "baby talk," also known as infant-directed speech. While baby talk is something we quite naturally slip into when around infants, we are still learning that there are many complexities to baby talk.
Our inclination for baby talk makes sense.
If we try to speak like babies, maybe they can understand us better. We do this by speaking in shorter phrases, repeating ourselves more often, and simplifying our sentence structure.
For instance, take the two most common first words a baby speaks: "dada" and "mama." These words are short, repetitive, and simple. So it's no surprise that infants pick up on this form of speech with their parents' encouragement.
But subtle changes go a long way.
Studies have shown that when talking to babies, we tend to elongate our vowels, exaggerate the pitch of our voices, and take longer pauses between words. We do this to try and match babies' own voices, guiding them into early language skills.
Psychologists from Acadia University divided infant-directed speech modifications into three categories: linguistic, attentional, and affective.
- Linguistic changes are made to simplify our speech to make it more relatable to babies.
- Attentional modifications help to obtain and hold babies' attention.
- And finally, affective modifications positively benefit the relationship between parents and their children.
But can the benefits of baby talk go beyond improving a baby's perception of what we are saying? Recent studies suggest that babies can also learn about the motor production of speech from our use of baby talk.
Our higher pitch and a slower rate of speech mimic the sound produced from a baby's smaller vocal tract. This allows infants to more easily translate their perception of speech to their own word production.
A recent study from the University of Florida tested this theory by seeing how infants responded to sounds at different frequencies. Higher-pitched frequencies corresponded to the infant vocal tract, while lower-pitched frequencies corresponded to the adult vocal tract.
The study results showed that infants paid more attention to the higher frequency speech that mimics smaller vocal tracts, like that of infants.
This finding suggests that infants prefer sounds similar to their own speech.
Interestingly, this preference was only seen in infants between the ages of 6 to 8 months. Babies in the 4 to 6-month age group did not show this preference, suggesting that this process of language development may occur a little later in infants.
The language milestone for infants between 4 and 7 months is canonical babbling, defined as speaking strings of repeated syllables or combining different syllables.
During this stage, infants also start to speak in vocal patterns, as they transition from babbling to logical speech.
Studies have also shown that infants learn a lot from the visual aspect of our baby talk.
When communicating with infants, we tend to widen our mouths, especially when emphasizing vowels. Exaggerated lip movements hold infants' attention, further improving their language development.
Our understanding of how infants perceive their speech is still limited. But this finding that babies prefer more infant-like sounds may provide some insight into their perspective. One theory is that baby talk acts as feedback for their speech development.
Baby talk is also helpful in holding an infant's attention, suggesting its contribution to learning even outside language development. With this more engaged attention, babies also start to pick up on social cues that contribute to bonding with their caregivers.
This level of developmental support, as well as emotional bonding that can arise from baby talk, indicate that infant-directed speech is a central tool in all aspects of child development.
So, the next time you're around an infant, embrace the baby talk.
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