Monday 2 July 2018

Baby Talk - the Good and the Bad

Parents of young children will no doubt have heard the term 'baby talk' being bandied about. Whether it be a well-meaning relative playfully saying 'goo goo gaga' to your baby or a friend telling you it is bad for speech and language development. As with most things, there are differing views but it is important to know the facts. So what exactly is baby talk and is it good or bad?

Baby talk is universal

Well actually it is both! And whether it be one or the other depends entirely on your definition of it. Not only that, it was recently revealed that baby talk is universal. It has been found that mothers all over the world consistently alter the way they speak to their babies. No matter what their language, mothers will alter the tone and sound of their voice when they speak to their baby. However, the way that they change their voices and speech could differ across cultures. For example, Lebanese mothers use more words per minute when talking to their babies than American mothers. Dads in North America slow their speech whereas dads in Vanuatu make more pitch changes but keep the rate of their speech the same.

So as you can see, baby talk is phenomenon that occurs everywhere. Let's look at it in more detail to find out the good and the bad.

Here is a little video of me talking to Asiya when she was around 8 weeks old to give you an idea of what motherese sounds like.

Negative baby talk

Dumbing down your speech and language to speak to your baby is not a good thing to do. If you are not using good language to speak to your baby, how can you expect them to learn it? Babies are learning all the time so they need good role models to learn from. It is so important that you use proper words and phrases to speak to your baby. By using simplified or made up words such as 'goo goo gaga' or 'nana' instead of 'banana' you are doing your baby a disservice. Not only will this lead to them naming things wrong, it also will not help to develop their speech and language skills. 

It is so important to use proper language when speaking to your baby or young child. If they say a word incorrectly, as they will when they are learning to talk (it is part of the speech and language development process), simply repeat the word or phrase back to them correctly. If they say 'nana' you can say 'oh you want a banana', using the correct word. It is only by reinforcing the correct language that they will learn to say it accurately. As for using completely nonsense words or phrases such as 'goo goo gaga', this should never be done as there is no benefit to using this language around your child at all.

Positive baby talk

Now to the positives. Did you know that baby talk can actually be positive? Parents naturally adapt their language when speaking to their young children and this is often called motherese or parentese. There are a number of ways parents alter the way they speak when directing their speech at a baby or young child. Parents use more varied rhythm and intonation when speaking to their baby. This is great as it captures babies attention and cues them in to listening. Not only do babies love to listen to it, the exaggerated pronunciation helps babies to acquire the sounds the words are made up of. This is because key words are emphasised which makes it easier for babies to pick up on them in the continuous stream of speech.

Baby talk tends to be slower with key words being produced at the end of phrases which makes them easier to acquire. The slowing down of speech also gives babies more time to process the words. Furthermore, words produced in isolation, such as 'Daddy' or 'bye bye', are easiest for babies to acquire which is why this vocabulary often makes up babies first words. Words produced in isolation are easier to acquire because they do not have to be separated from the other words in the phrase. It is easy to recognise where they begin and end.

Finally, the repetitive nature of baby talk also helps babies to pick up on the words and phrases being used. The more often a baby hears a word, the easier it is for them to pick it out from the continuous stream of speech. Similarly, reduplicated words, such as 'quack quack', also make up babies first words as they are easily identified and learnt.

As you can see there are both positives and negatives to baby talk but as long as you are speaking to your baby in child-directed motherese, you will be aiding their speech and language skills. These adaptations parents make when speaking motherese positively impact a baby's speech and language development. Not only that, child-directed speech also helps to create a strong emotional bond between parent and child.

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