Updated: Jul 9, 2020
Even before a baby is born, the process of language learning has already begun. Towards the end of pregnancy, after an infant's ears have sufficiently developed, the patterns and sounds of their mother and father's speech are transmitted through Mum's belly. Though the sounds are muffled and fuzzy, making it difficult to isolate individual sounds, the rhythm and intonation of the language are clear.
Newborn infants are primed to start learning the languages that surround them in daily life, and already show a preference for their parent's spoken language. This preference directs their attention, allowing babies to learn more about the features and patterns of their parents' native tongue. Although it may seem odd for infants so young to show a preference, it is merely a matter of the familiar. For example, Italian and Korean speakers emphasise different parts of a word or sentence meaning the rhythm of these two languages are very different. At just one week old, babies can detect these differences and use this information to tell the difference between their own language (i.e., their parents' language) and an unfamiliar language.
BUT WHY BABYTALK?
What we call "babytalk" or "motherese" is vital to helping babies learn to understand and produce language. Babytalk is typically characterised by increases in pitch and the use of wide, exaggerated intonation changes. Studies have demonstrated that babies prefer to listen to exaggerated "babytalk" over standard adult-like speech. Babies pay more attention when a parent’s speech uses a higher and more varied range of pitch when compared to adult-like speech which uses fewer features of exaggerated pitch. For example, a mother might say the word “baaaaabbbbyyyyy” in an exaggerated or song-like voice, holding her infant’s attention longer than if she spoke in her normal speaking voice. Talking in this way also helps words stand out making it easier for babies to differentiate and pick out smaller chunks or groupings of language. These distinctive features of baby talk help babies “tune in” and make understanding what Mum is saying a much easier task.
SLOW IT DOWN NOW
Baby talk tends to involve speaking more slowly and putting key words at the end of a spoken phrase. For example, “Where is the kitty?” will help babies understand and learn the word 'kitty' more easily than “The kitty is hiding in the bushes”. For this reason producing words individually, and separating sentence fragments with large pauses makes language learning an easier task for babies. Research shows that the first words infants produce are often those that are accompanied by large pauses either side, or are spoken in isolation. Babies hear isolated words such as “bye-bye” and “mummy” very frequently, and these are often some of the earliest words that they learn to produce.
When a word is produced separately from run-on speech, an infant does not have to separate it from the stream of sounds that surround it, making it easier to identify where a particular word begins and ends. Additionally, slowing down one's speech has been shown to help infants isolate individual words and sounds as these words are often produced more clearly than in faster speech. Another key factor is that, as they are still learning, infants process language much more slowly than adults and slower speech allows them more time to make sense of what they are hearing.
WHY AM I ALWAYS REPEATING MYSELF?
Repeating words is also beneficial in infants’ early word learning. Infants’ first words are often those which are produced most frequently in caregiver speech. Words such as “mummy,” “daddy”, “uh-oh” and “bye-bye” are among the most common first words of English speaking babies. On top of this, 'reduplicated' words – or words that involve repetition such as “woof woof” or “quack quack” – are typical of baby talk, and are shown to have an advantage for early word learning. Newborn infants show stronger brain activation when they hear reduplicated words, indicating this may provide an advantage for these words in human language processing. Also, other research shows that slightly older infants tend to learn reduplicated words more easily than non-reduplicated words.
TALK TO ME BABY!
Baby talk is not just a cute way to engage with babies on a social level – it has huge implications for helping babies learn how to communicate with those around them. While baby talk is not essential for language learning, the use of modulated pitch, repetition and slower speech all allow infants to process the patterns of language faster and more easily. Speaking in such an exaggerated style might feel strange but the science shows that you are helping provide the optimum input for helping your baby to learn language.