Adults have an innate and built-in way of speaking to babies. Most people use it automatically, but some people train themselves out of it and others train themselves into entirely different behaviours, either because they don’t want to condescend to their babies, or because they think it is necessary to; they want to simplify language and make it cuter, because they think that’s what babies need.
Turns out, babies DON’T need that. Infants have an amazing ability to learn languages, and everything they need to do it is hardwired right into them! Adults just need to trust their own instincts when it comes to talking to them.
So what IS “Parentese”?
Parentese is that slower, higher-pitched, overly-exaggerated way of speaking to babies that you see most adults using. We open our eyes wider, put on big smiles, and over-enunciate the words we’re saying. It is often sing-songy and stretches out vowel sounds, so that an ‘apple’ becomes an ‘aaaaaapple’ and objects aren’t just ‘big’, they’re ‘biiiiiiig’.
Baby Talk is something else completely. When people “baby talk”, they change regular words into words that are basically nonsense. Instead of telling you that you have a cute little baby, they might instead say: “What a toot wittle beebee!”. They aren’t changing real words to emphasize meaning or pronunciation… they’re using invented words with no meaning whatsoever!
When should I use Parentese, and when should I use Baby Talk?
You should NEVER use baby talk. Don’t use it around kids, don’t use it around infants, and DON’T use it around adults.
Baby Talk will actually delay speech and language development and teach children the wrong way to speak. For example, if your child grows up thinking that you “wuv” her, and that she is “stwong and smawt”, she will not recognize the words ‘love’, ‘strong’ and ‘smart’ when she hears other people say them — she will have no comprehension of what those words mean, and will continue to say them the wrong way so that other children, in turn, will misunderstand what she is trying to say. She might not even learn how to properly form some sounds… if she hears a lot of words with w’s in them where l’s should be, she might always pronounce words that way.
The good news is, you can feel confident in your use of Parentese. People use it all over the world and in every language we speak! Even very young babies turn their heads and are more attentive when people talk to them this way. They suck faster when they’re breastfeeding and are better able to mimic these sounds than those of regular-patterned language. They LOVE being spoken to this way.
Why talk to babies anyways?
Sometimes people feel foolish talking to infants who “can’t understand them”. Babies can’t answer questions, or ask any in turn. They can’t tell you with words how they’re feeling, or follow instructions to complete tasks. They can rarely do anything more than babble and giggle and cry…
But that babbling, giggling, and crying IS their way of communicating. When you talk to a baby and leave space for them to make their own noises, it teaches them how conversations work: first one person talks, then it’s the other person’s turn. When you respond to a baby’s gurgles by saying things like, “is that so?” it teaches them that their voices are heard and recognized. And when you speak confidently to a baby using the full, rich vocabulary of your native language, they learn to do the same! If you want your baby to learn how to talk, you have to model how! You have to talk to them.
All. The. Time.
Does Parentese dumb down language?
Using Parentese makes it easier for children to learn language. That is true whether you’re talking about a “biiiiiig dog” or a “gigaaaaaantic canine”. Whichever words you use around your child are the ones they will learn, so use as many as you possibly can!
And don’t worry about continuing speaking this way for too long. As soon as your child stops reacting to Parentese the same way they used to, you’ll naturally phase out using it and start using regularly-patterned speech.