Do you catch yourself talking to your baby in a silly sing-song voice or using words like “na-na” instead of banana or making exaggerated statements for mundane events like “oooooh! look at the doggie, the doggie is going for walkies, woof woof”.
While it may sound silly to adults, research has shown that this style of speech plays an important role in language learning. Baby talk is useful because it engages infants' emotions and highlights the structure of language, helping them decode the puzzle of syllables, words & sentences.
Before a baby is born, the process of learning language has already begun. Towards the end of pregnancy, an infant's ears have sufficiently developed to identify the patterns & rhythms of their parents' voice. Baby-talk is not just a cute way to engage with your baby – it has huge implications for helping babies learn how to communicate with you & the world around them.
Baby-talk is characterised by higher pitch, exaggerated intonation, speaking slowly & putting key words at the end of a phrase. These features all help babies learn language by letting them better “tune in”, to make understanding what Mum or Dad is saying a much easier task.
For example, by putting the word ‘cat at the end of the sentence – “Where is the puppy?” instead of “The puppy is hiding in bushes” helps children learn the word puppy more easily as children are prone to focusing on the most recent piece of information they receive.
Research also shows that the infants’ first words are usually ones that are accompanied by large pauses either side, or are spoken in isolation (e.g., "no" and “ball”).
Repetition is another key element of Baby-talk. Words such as “mummy,” “daddy” & “uh-oh” are among the most common first words of English speaking babies. Newborn infants display stronger brain activation for repetitive words like these and they are shown to be advantageous for early word learning.
The science is clear, when you use Baby-talk, you are providing the optimum input for helping your baby to learn language.
References: Fernald 1985; Burnham, Kitamura & Vollmer-Conna 2002; Singh et al 2009