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Baby talk can help infants make words, study claims

Speaking to your baby in exaggerated, high-pitched and singsong tones can help them learn to make words, a new study claims.

Researchers at the University of Florida found babies aged six-to-eight months reacted to the sound of ‘baby talk’ with ‘visible lip and tongue movement’ – a potential sign that they were trying to prime themselves for speech.  

So when parents impersonate a baby when they talk to their infants, they might be helping them learn to produce speech sooner. 

Baby talk uses proper words, but spoken in a drawn-out and exaggerated singsong pattern of intonation, usually at a higher pitch.  

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When parents baby talk to their infants, they might be helping them learn to produce speech, researchers in Gainesville, Florida report (stock image)


Baby talk is a certain style of speech employed by adults when talking to an infant.

It is characterised by higher and wider pitch, slower speech rate and a ‘sing song’ pattern of intonation that differentiates it from the more monotone style used when adults speak normally.

When parents or other caregivers use baby talk, they use normal language. But they make it simpler by repeating words a lot and speaking slower.

Baby talkers also exaggerate facial expressions – they open the mouth wider, raise eyebrows and smile a lot.

Scientists claim that talking to babies gives them advantages in life far beyond a larger vocabulary.

They say that chatting to babies under the age of one, helps them make friends, as well as making them brighter because they are better able to discover the world around them.

It’s already thought the way we instinctively speak to babies helps them understand what we’re saying.

Now, the new research suggests this ‘baby talk’ also helps babies learn to produce their own speech. This was a previously unknown benefit, the authors claim. 

‘It seems to stimulate motor production of speech, not just the perception of speech,’ said study author Matthew Masapollo at the University of Florida. ‘It’s not just goo-goo ga-ga.’

By mimicking the sound of a smaller vocal tract, the researchers think, we’re ‘cluing babies in’ to how the words should sound coming out of their own mouths.

Though baby talk may sound simple, it’s accomplishing a lot, according to co-author Linda Polka at McGill University in Canada.

‘We’re trying to engage with the infant to show them something about speech production,’ she said. ‘We’re priming them to process their own voice.’ 

For the study, the researchers changed the frequency of sounds to mimic either an infant or adult vocal tract, and then tested how infants reacted. 

They recruited just over 60 babies, who sat on their parent or caregiver’s lap while they played the two different computerised vocal sounds.

Researchers wanted to assess the babies’ preferences for either the adult vocal sounds or infant vocal sounds, as Polka explains.

‘We presented the baby with two different kinds of sounds (the baby can control when the sound plays by looking at a visual pattern),’ she told MailOnline.

‘We measure how long they listen to each sound to see if they choose to listen more to one sound compared to the other.’ 

The six-to-eight-month-olds ‘displayed a robust and distinct preference’ for speech with resonances of a vocal tract similar in size and length to their own, they found.

A small vocal tract, like what babies have, leads to more high-pitched sounds, while the large vocal tract of an adult creates a lower pitch. 

Interestingly, previous research has shown that four-month-olds to six-month-olds didn’t have that preference.

So the researchers think that six to eight months is the age where babies have a dawning realisation that they can control their voices and make words out of babble.

Overall, the experiments showed that babies react more to the sound of baby noises – higher in pitch, as if they’re coming from a fellow baby’s vocal tract – with subtle signs that they’re trying to speak, compared to when they hear adult-like noises. 

So the message for parents is that speaking more like a baby may be an effective way of triggering speech from their offspring.    

‘There is some evidence that when mothers talk to their baby (as compared to when they talk to another adult), they raise their larynx and spread their lips, which shortens their vocal tract length,’ Masapollo told MailOnline.

‘While caregivers certainly cannot shorten their vocal tract enough to match the vocal tract length of their infant, this modification in speaking may nevertheless make caregivers sound more infant-like, which in turn, may help attract infant attention. 

A research paper published earlier in 2021 found babies will pay more attention to baby talk than regular speech, regardless of which languages they're used to hearing

A research paper published earlier in 2021 found babies will pay more attention to baby talk than regular speech, regardless of which languages they’re used to hearing

‘From this perspective, infant-directed speech (or baby talk) will prime infants for processing their own voice and stimulate them to be more vocally active.’ 

The fact babies reacted to infant vocal sounds with visible lip and tongue movement is something the team is examining more directly in ongoing experiments, he said.     

Parents are sometimes discouraged from engaging in baby talk, but patterns associated with that speaking style could be a key component in helping babies make words, the team claim

Their study has been published today in the Journal of Speech, Language and Hearing Research. 

Earlier this year, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) found that babies prefer baby talk whether they’re learning one language or two.

While previous research has shown that monolingual babies prefer baby talk, this UCLA study found that it is also the case for babies exposed to two languages.   

Dr Marina Kalashnikova from Western Sydney University explains the importance of baby talk

Baby talk: Speaking to young children in a high-pitched and exaggerated voice really does help them develop language skills, study claims 

Parents may feel self-conscious, but talking to a baby in a silly voice really could help them learn, a 2020 study found.

A study of 71 families looked at ‘parentese’ – the slow, high-pitched, happy-sounding voice in which many parents talk to their babies.

Parentese has been used as another term for ‘baby talk’, although this team of study authors said the two definitions differ slightly. 

They said baby talk tends to be ungrammatical and include made-up nonsense words.

Parentese, on the other hand, uses only accurate words and grammar, but said in a voice nearly an octave higher.

Just like baby talk, parentese employs exaggerated facial expressions and long vowels which make phonetic sounds of letters easier to understand.

The researchers found that children spoken to this way the most knew more proper words like ‘banana’ and ‘dog’ at 18 months old.

Experts used to think this way of speaking to made them worse at learning language.

But recent evidence shows speaking to a child slowly and cheerfully grabs their attention, which may make them engage more with their parents and try to imitate their speech.

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