Baby talk is a variation of adult language, invented by adults and passed on to each generation of babies; its sole purpose being to teach children to talk. When an adult sees a baby, it’s somewhat automatic to use baby talk with her.
Linguist and anthropologist Peter Farb showed in his research that six very different languages have their own version of baby talk. Though their baby talk terms differ from each other, there is a unifying theme. All six languages have baby talk terms for family members, eating, sleeping, good and bad behavior, going to the potty, and so on. Thus, words are indeed most important to a baby during her first year of life.
Baby talk is not the same as babbling. Babbling is actually a baby’s way to practice her vocal chords in preparation for talking. Baby talk refers to infant-directed speech or “motherese”/“parenthese” as it was once called. According to Kathy Reschke, Ph.D., early childhood specialist in Ohio, infant-directed speech has a high pitch, exaggerated range of pitches, shorter phrases, longer pauses between phrases, and clearer pronunciation.
Why is baby talk important?
Scientists have discovered that hearing baby talk helps babies pick up an amazing amount of knowledge about language and communication.
Because of its sing-song tone and exaggerated vowels, it stands out in the environment compared to the way adults speak to one another. And since baby talk draws an infant’s attention better, a baby’s face-to-face conversation with an adult becomes a warmer and more enjoyable interaction.
Also, long before babies understand the meanings of words or begin to use words to communicate, they can already adjust to the natural rhythm of voices.
Recent studies published claim that speaking to young children using baby talk actually slows down their language development.
The study also suggests that speaking to young children using more complex sentences may set a better example and improve their language skills. That way, babies will learn the right terms and forms of language early on and develop higher language comprehension further as they grow.
Is there a cause for worry?
Author Roberta Michnick Golinkoff stresses that parents should adjust their ‘childspeak’ as the baby grows. The way a parent talks to the child should also match the child’s developmental skills. Studies have shown that parents who gradually adjust their speech as their babies grow, have babies who at 18 months, have better understanding of word meanings.
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Babies’ first words tend to come from a fairly small set, usually consisting of names of family members, objects they use a lot like bottle or milk.
Stuttering or speaking bulol should not cause parents to worry. These common speech problems generally go away on their own, unless there’s an underlying cause such as problems in physical attributes used for speaking (cleft lip, short tongue, lisping, etc.). What is important is how a child understands and communicates with words.
Photography by Miguel Nacianceno
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How Babies Talk: The Magic and Mystery of Language in the First Three Years of Life by Roberta Michnick Golinkoff and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek