You know when you see something really cute, like a kitten or a baby, and you instinctively talk to it with an embarrassingly high-pitched, singsong voice?
This phenomenon is called baby talk – or colloquially known as infant directed speech or motherese. It’s speech that is high-pitched, slow, exaggerated and emotionally positive or affectionate.
We all use baby talk when speaking to infants, children and other small adorable creatures. Baby talk is essentially universal to all languages, although English-speakers tend to use more exaggerated baby talk compared to other languages.
But baby talk is really strange, if you think about it. No one tells us we have to talk to young children and infants this way, so why do adults change the way they speak when talking to babies? Do babies actually benefit from this type of talk compared to normal, unemotional speech?
First, we use baby talk as adults because we realize that the little human we are talking to does not understand what we are saying. We know young infants don’t understand our speech yet, but because we want to communicate with them, we try to supplement our speech. We use emotional expressions and high-pitched speech to make the baby happy and engaged, and we use exaggerated, slow speech to grab and maintain the baby’s attention.
Our ultimate goal in using baby talk is to communicate our intention. When talking to infants, we may want to show the baby a toy, or show approval or disapproval. However, because we know young infants do not understand language yet, we try to convey our intentions using the acoustic sound of our voice.
Interestingly, research published in Science suggests that infant-directed speech does effectively communicate intentions, like approval, comfort and attention, even to speakers of a different language. Adults in a non-industrial, non-literate community in South America were able to classify English infant-directed speech by the intention conveyed in the acoustic sound. Because the participants did not speak English, the findings suggest that infant-directed speech may universally communicate the intention of the speaker, perhaps even to pre-verbal infants.
Second, babies actually prefer infant-directed speech and learn more from infant-directed speech compared to adult-directed speech. Research shows that within the first two months of life, infants show a strong preference for baby talk over adult-directed speech, and even prefer baby talk in a foreign language compared to adult-directed speech in a familiar language.
More importantly, research also shows that infant-directed speech may help infants early in the language learning process. Research shows that infant-directed speech helps six- and seven-month-old infants segment words from a string of speech. For infants who are learning their native language, speech is just a continuous string of sounds. Infants therefore must learn how to parse continuous speech into words, and then figure out how those words map onto objects and actions in the world. Because infant-directed speech is slow and exaggerated, it helps infants identify the beginning and ends of words better than adult-directed speech. In this way, baby talk is thought to promote language acquisition.
I find infant-directed speech so interesting because it benefits development without any added work on the part of the parents. Baby talk occurs naturally and babies enjoy it, which means they want to pay attention to it. In this sense, baby talk is effortless yet a powerful learning mechanism early in development.
Even though adults often feel foolish when using baby talk, it may be an important and essential part of the language acquisition process. Don’t be shy about using baby talk – babies love it, and (literally) almost everyone else on the planet is doing it.