The term “baby talk” conjures up images of otherwise rational adults cooing nonsensical words to babies in very high-pitched tones. Some people find it annoying, but more important, is it a good way to communicate with a baby?
To begin answering this question, let’s refer to baby talk as “motherese,” the name used by speech and language specialists. Despite this more professional name, fathers, other caregivers and most adults use this form of speech when speaking to infants.
“Motherese” is characterized by the use of short simple sentences; a slightly higher pitch and an exaggerated intonation pattern; talk about objects or actions with which the child is engaged; repetition of the caregiver’s or the child’s utterances; significant pauses between utterances; and many questions and commands. It may also involve repeating a child’s utterance and adding words or structure to the statement. For example, if the child points and says “Truck!” the adult might respond “Yes, that’s a fire truck.”
When parents employ motherese, they are not conscious that they are using it, nor are they attempting to teach language. Parents and other caregivers are naturally “fine tuning” their language based primarily on the child’s comprehension level. As the child’s language matures, the caregiver’s speech directed to him or her changes as well.
“Several studies have shown that motherese seems well tuned to the child’s language level,” reports leading language acquisition researcher Robert Owens.
Motherese is ideally suited to getting the child’s attention and building his or her language comprehension and expression. A slightly higher pitch and an exaggerated intonation pattern help attract and hold the baby’s attention. A significant pause between one utterance and another helps the child distinguish between where one utterance ends and the next begins; it also provides more time for the child to process information. Questions elicit expressive language responses from the child, as well as establishes conversational turn-taking.
Joanne Summer, MA, CCC-SLP, a speech-language pathologist based in Morristown, NJ, has helped hundreds of children improve their speech sound production and language skills. She founded Well Spoken Speech Therapy, LLC, in 2014 after spending 12 years providing therapy to children (K-5) in the New Jersey public school system. In private practice, her clients also include younger children and adolescents. In addition, she treats people of all ages who stutter or otherwise find it difficult to speak fluently—an area in which she has received extensive specialized training.