speech-language development

Does Baby Talk Boost Speech-Language Development?

Over the years, there’s been some debate about whether “baby talk” helps or hinders speech-language development for infants and toddlers. Before our Brecksville speech-language pathologists weigh in, it’s important to note there is a key difference between “baby talk” and “parentese.” Both are often cutesy and sing-song-y, but baby talk typically involves nonsense words (“shoesie-woosies” or “toesie-woesies”), while parentese involves exaggerated sounds and simple words and grammar (“Goooooo-dd morn-iiiiing!” and “haaaa-ppyyy!” and “brr-iiiiiight!”).

For all our differences across languages and cultures in the world, parentese is one near universal when it comes to teaching children to communicate. That is to say, parents and caregivers appear naturally drawn to use this speaking style around small children, perhaps because it’s proven so effective in getting a baby’s attention. It’s one of the first tools we offer to help babies learn to verbalize.

Extensive research shows that parentese – which has roots in “baby talk” – is actually critical for helping children learn language. Although there’s nothing inherently wrong with baby talk, at least really early on, parentese takes it to the next level with conscious attention to intonation and gestures. It’s also grammatically correct, even if simplified.

One recent speech-language study, conducted by researchers at the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences, looked at how coaching parents about the benefits of parentese might impact adults’ use of it with their infants, and in turn how that would boost their children’s speech-language development. The analysis found that parents who participated received individual coaching on consciously using parentese, while the control group wasn’t coached at all. Those who were expressly taught the importance of it tended to use it more, as was evidenced by the advanced language skills of their children months later (when they were 18-months-old).

Study authors theorize that use of parentese makes it easier for young children to learn language because of the exaggerated sounds and linguistic structure. Another reason it’s believed to be effective is that it provides what researchers call a “social hook.” That is, the slow tempo, high pitch, and happy emotion invite social engagement from babies and young children, encouraging them to respond (even if they only do so by babbling). Using proper grammar and trying to use full (but simple) sentences when possible can help babies draw connections between those words and bigger concepts.

Nearly 50 families were randomly assigned to the coaching sessions, and then wore lightweight recorders to measure their use of parentese, as well as infant language production (whether it was actual words or just babbling). Parents were encouraged to engage in back-and-forth exchanges – something known as conversational turns – with their babies. They were also urged to consciously include this type of language as part of their every day interactions with their kids. While all parents in the study used some type of parentese at the start of the project, they began to consciously use it more frequently with coaching. At the conclusion of the study, researchers found their babies’ language skills – specifically vocalizations and conversational turn-taking – were much higher than those in the control group. They averaged 100 words among 18-month-olds of families who were coached compared to 60 words among those in the control group.

As pediatric speech therapists, we recognize that the language skills developed in infancy are strong predictors of how subsequent speech-language development is going to roll out. Seizing any opportunity to enhance language behaviors when they’re babies will have a positive, snowball effect on their speech development over time.

If you have concerns about your child’s speech-language development or wonder if they may need speech-language therapy, our dedicated Brecksville speech therapy team can conduct a full evaluation to help you make the right choice about your next step.

Therapy & Wellness Connection – your connection to a life without limitations – provides speech therapy to children in Akron, Cleveland, Brecksville-Broadview Heights and surrounding communities. We also offer summer camp, day programs, education services, vocational counseling and more. Call us at (330) 748-4807 or send us an email.

Additional Resources:

Kuhl Constructs: How Babies Form Foundations for Language, June 13, 2013, By Sarah Roehrich, ASHA

More Blog Entries:

Brecksville Speech Therapy Communication Boosters for Kids Under 5, Jan. 14, 2022, Brecksville Speech Therapist Blog