We’ve talked a lot on our blog about the fact that babies’ brains begin learning to talk from the time they are born simply by listening to those around them speak. There are two critical components to that happening:
- Baby must be able to hear in order to listen: A child’s brain must have access to sound.
- Parents and caregivers must be intentional about talking to baby: Long before that little one can make sense of what you are saying.
It’s amazing to think that language acquisition starts before the first “goo goo gaga” — and that the early conversations we have with baby, and the early babbles and coos they say in response, are paving the way for learning and literacy. During this formative time we know that the more words a baby hears, the faster their vocabulary tends to grow.
Now studies are showing us that it’s not just the quantity of words that counts, but how we talk to children matters. Researchers Patricia Kuhl at the University of Washington and Nairán Ramírez-Esparza at the University of Connecticut recorded thousands of verbal exchanges between parents and babies to understand how two particular aspects of parental speech impacted babies’ language development:
- Grown-up talk vs. Baby talk. (Speech style) That is to say, whether parents used a regular speaking voice or the animated, sing-songy talking style that most of us think of as “baby talk.” (The study refers to this style as “parenteese.”)
- Group talk vs One-on-one. (Speech context) How often was mom (or dad) addressing a group (the whole family, siblings or simply others in the room) vs a one-one-one interaction between parent and child.
The findings, which were published in the Journal of Developmental Science, were very interesting. Children who had more baby talk in one-on-one conversations with their parents had better language development — both during the study and in the future.
More baby talk
The more parents exaggerated vowels — like “Helloooooooo!” — with the pitch of their voices raised, the more one-year-olds babbled, “returning” the adult’s “serve” and practicing future conversation patterns.
More individual talk
The baby talk worked best when the parents would speak to the child one-on-one, without others (children or adult) around.
What’s amazing is that — not only did the infants who heard baby talk babble back more during the study, but when researchers Kuhl and Ramirez-Esparza checked back with them a year later, they found that infants who heard more baby talk knew more words. Two year-olds in families who:
- used the most baby talk in one-on-one settings knew about 433 words (avg.)
- used the least baby talk in one-on-one settings knew about 169 words (avg.)
That’s a pretty dramatic difference! Parents who think they just speak that way because it’s cute and makes baby laugh can pat themselves on the back! You’ve been benefiting your child without realizing it.
FOR BABIES WHO ARE D/HH THIS IS PARTICULARLY IMPORTANT
While the findings of this study are true for all babies, this is particularly important for parents of infants with hearing loss.
The fact that children who are born D/HH can learn to listen and talk, and reach learning and literacy outcomes on par with their hearing peers — is still new news to many people.
A parent may not make a point to speak one-on-one to a baby who is hearing impaired if they are unsure if their baby can hear them. And obviously those who do not know the status of their baby’s hearing risk the child’s brain not having access to the sounds the parents are making — baby talk or otherwise. So first and foremost, find out the status of your baby’s hearing.
Families who choose a Listening and Spoken Language outcome for their child must be intentional about language acquisition from day one. So what does this study suggest you might integrate into your communication patterns at home?
- Make an effort to talk to baby more. Some families are quieter than others and that’s ok! If yours is not a talkative house, make a point to talk to baby.
- Try speaking some ‘parentese.’ If sing song silly talk doesn’t come naturally, try this formula when chatting with your infant…
- Emphasize important words
- Speak slowly
- Use a happy tone of voice
- Narrate everyday activities. Rather than trying to think of things to say to baby, consider talking through what’s happening in the moment. You can narrate actions, reactions and motivations as you go. Some examples might include: Where are your shoooooes? Let’s change that stinkyyyyy diiiiiaper! This cookie tasted soooo goooood!
- Celebrate when they babble back. Just because your baby can’t yet form words doesn’t mean they aren’t talking. Remember that coos do count! When babies babble back, be sure to treat their sounds as a real response and an invitation to engage.
- Keep the conversation going. An infant doesn't need complete sentences to be quite the conversationalist. The point is not to talk at your child, but rather to engage them in an exchange. Baby talk to you infant, and when they vocalize in response — talk back. The serve and return will invite continued connections and language growth.
When Kuhl and Ramirez reviewed the scans of babies’ brains during these thousands of exchanges, they found that infants as little as 7 months old were rehearsing speech mechanics. That is to say, their baby brain was already trying to figure out how to make the movements they need to produce words.
Remember, have your baby wear their hearing technology whenever they are awake so that they can learn through listening and follow these tips to for how to talk to your baby.
Learn More About It:
Watch these videos to learn more about parentese:
Parentese: It’s Never too EArly to Start a Conversation:
Baby Talk Really Does Help Build Your Kiddy-Widdy’s Vocabulary:
Learn more about what research tells us about the speech preferences of preverbal young children