Everyone is familiar with the term ‘baby talk’ and I am sure everyone has been guilty of baby talk at least once or twice in their life. I know I use baby talk every time I talk to my nieces and nephews, I even use baby talk when talking to my dogs! We speak more slowly, speak in almost a sing-a-long, and use more “cutesy” words (like tummy) because we believe that talking like this will get babies to understand us better. But is that really the case? According to research from the Psychological Science, a journal located in the Association of Psychological Science, mothers who think they are speaking more clearly to their children by using ‘baby talk’ may actually be speaking less clearly than they do with adults.
This article on mother’s baby talk relates back to phonology and how children learn language even if their communication with adults is entirely non-linguistic (Reisburg, 352). They create an inventive language that has many of the formal structures routinely seen in the world’s existing language. The pattern of the emergence of this inventive language follows the same sequence that is observed in ordinary language learning. It is suggested that children are born with brain structures that somehow define the broad structure of human language. This is why language learning is so fast and why learning can advance with truly minimal input.
We usually try to pronounce sounds more distinctly when there is a chance that the listener will not understand us. Take talking on a noisy telephone for example. This is the same thing parents do when addressing children, it is an unconscious attempt to help their children learn the sounds of the language. Parents will open their mouth more when saying “ah” to a child thinking it makes it easier for the child to distinguish this sound from others. There has not been that much evidence for this but two research teams decided to put this hypothesis to test.
The researchers recorded 22 Japanese mothers talking to their children who were of the age of 18 to 24 months and to an experimenter. They spent 5 years interpreting 14 hours of speech and marking specific aspects of the speech including the beginnings and ends of consonants, vowels, and phrases. Next, the researchers applied techniques they had developed to measure acoustic similarity between any two syllables, like ‘pa’ and ‘ba’, ‘po’ and ‘bo.’ The results showed that mothers spoke slightly LESS clearly when talking to their child than to the experimenter. Which to me is very surprising!
However, just because the mothers speak less clearly does not mean that it effects their child’s learning acquisition. It actually sheds light on to why babies seem to be so much better at learning the distinctive sounds of their language than adults are. These results suggest that the secret to infant’s language learning might be the infant themselves. It is truly remarkable that babies can pick up sounds from people who are speaking less clearly to them than with adults.
This article is very interesting because all this time we think we are helping children understand what we are saying by speaking slower. I think a big part of “baby talk” we have to put into consideration though is that a lot of the reasons we speak in such a tone to infants is to gain their attention. I definitely think a baby is more likely to pay attention to someone talking in a more loving way than in a more monotone way like they do with adults. This research helps a lot in gaining a larger perspective on the nature of how children acquire their native language.