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How parental baby talk improves a child's language skills

Posted August 11

Baby talk, or the high-pitched, sing-song voice parents use when talking to their babies, helps those children learn language faster, according to research from Rutgers University.

"The best way to help a baby learn might actually be to follow many parents' instincts and use 'motherese,' a sing-songy voice that exaggerates the sounds the baby hears," according to the Rutgers news release of the report in May.

For the study, researchers Baxter Eaves, Patrick Shafto and colleagues formed a mathematical model that predicated a speech pattern to teach babies language. They then compared their invented speech pattern with other speech patterns and found their infant-directed pattern was a closer match for understandable speech for babies.

According to Shafto, "the sounds that are selected exaggerate the important properties that babies need to attend to and learn about. If you exaggerate in the correct way, what you get is a learner who learns more quickly from less data."

PBS Parents reinforced the idea that speaking this way helps babies learn language because "their brains are 'mapping' the sounds they are hearing, and talking in a way that gets their attention helps them learn to speak and understand language."

Although "motherese" is natural for mothers, there has been criticism of the use of baby talk.

"I have friends who use it on my kid, and it drives me crazy," Mike Julianelle wrote for Scary Mommy, a site advocating that parenting doesn't have to be perfect. "Both to encourage them to learn how to speak correctly and to prevent myself from sounding ridiculous, I've always endeavored to speak to my children as adults."

However, according to PBS Parents, speaking motherese delights babies. "Research shows that infants actually prefer motherese to adult conversations. Babies not only enjoy the high-pitched sounds, they also like watching our faces as we talk to them."

Pets and foreigners also hear either high-pitched or exaggerated speech from adults, but for different reasons.

"Pets hear sing-songy voices with no effort by the speaker to exaggerate vowels to make the animals understand — a pure play to cuteness that differs from speech intended to teach a baby," according to the news release. "Foreigners get the opposite — no condescending sing-song, but a concerted effort to exaggerate vowel sounds — the better to help the listener understand a language he or she doesn't know."

Email: mmcnulty@deseretnews.com

Twitter: megchristine5

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