“Where’s the dolly? Here’s the dolly. You see the dolly, don’t you? Dolly smiling. Pretty dolly. “
Reading those words, you can almost hear the typical parent’s voice in your head: high-pitched, exaggerated intonation, slower than normal speech, and VERY EXCITED about dolly.
Call it baby talk, the more technical-sounding “child directed speech”, the politically incorrect “motherese” or its French equivalent “Mamanaise”, and the answer is still no.
It sounds like a shocking thing to assert, but the weight of evidence suggests that parents don’t actually teach their kids how to put words together to form grammatically correct sentences. If they did, kids who grow up in cultures where parents don’t talk to their infants, or children with severe hearing impairments, would never learn how to use language flexibly – and kids everywhere do.*
So, is using baby talk to talk to your child a waste of time?
Absolutely not. Anne Ferand** has shown that baby-talk may serve several functions. Baby talk:
- gets and keeps the child’s attention;
- helps soothe a distressed infant;
- marks turn-taking episodes in parent-infant “conversations”;
- helps the child process the parent’s speech stream – important for the development of speech;
- helps children distinguish statements from questions and commands; and
- highlights new information for the child (e.g. new words).
Most importantly, Ferand’s studies show that very young children (as young as 4 months) prefer baby-talk to “adultspeak”. A good enough reason to use it in itself.
When should you stop using baby talk? How do you tackle poor grammar in language-impaired children?
These are both very important topics for future blog entries.
* A note for those few poor word-nerds like me who are interested in linguistic theory: Following the work of Noam Chomsky, most linguists think that children are equipped with an innate template or blueprint for language, and that this blueprint helps kids construct grammars for their particular language. The blueprint is sometimes called “Universal Grammar” (always capitalised), and Chomsky’s theory is called the “innateness theory”. Some of Chomsky’s work is available online. But a warning: his writing on linguistics and language can be challenging to follow – his work is a very poor choice for bedtime reading (unless you’re suffering a bout of insomnia).
** e.g. Ferald, A. (1985). Four-Month-Old Infants Prefer to Listen to Motherese, Infant Behavior and Development 8, 181-195.
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Hi there, I’m David Kinnane.
Principal Speech Pathologist, Banter Speech & Language
Our talented team of certified practising speech pathologists provide unhurried, personalised and evidence-based speech pathology care to children and adults in the Inner West of Sydney and beyond, both in our clinic and via telehealth.