Let me start by asking “what is motherese?” Some people seem to be familiar with this term while others have never heard of it. To me it sounds a bit formal. However, it simply means “baby talk”. Motherese brings with it the idea that it is something that only mothers do. Whereas baby talk is more gender neutral. In our politically correct society many now prefer the term parentese to motherese. Most child development experts use the term child-directed speech or infant-directed speech.
Exactly what is motherese/parentese/baby talk?
As I mentioned above, most people define motherese in pretty much the same way as they would define baby talk. Let’s look at the key points in the definition of motherese:
Definition of Motherese
- using frequent variations in pitch and intonation (think cooing pattern – “ooh ah who’s a cute baby?” – almost a sign song voice)
- using short sentences often omitting grammar (telegraphic speech)
- repetition of words or phrases
- using made up words. Some common ones include: tata (give me), boo-boo (wound, hurt), moo moo (cow), potty (toilet), num num (eat), soosie, paci, binkie (soother/pacifier) etc.
- speaking in the 3rd person. For example, “give it to mommy”, or “mommy sees you”
- for a full definition and history of motherese and baby talk, click here.
To sum up, motherese is how most parents communicate with their babies and often toddlers (and sometimes even preschoolers). Whichever term you decide to use, remember that they all refer to a pattern of speech consisting of the points I mentioned above. For the remainder of this post I will use the term baby talk.
The question remains, should parents stop baby talk?
The answer is a bit of yes and a bit of no. There are aspects to baby talk that you should stop, from a speech development perspective. However, it may be easier said than done for some parents.
The term baby talk first appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1836, so it has been around for a long time. It is probably something your parent’s did with you and their parent’s did with them; thus, making it hard to stop the pattern. Plus, it is also common to see parents and caregivers talking to their little ones in this way on TV shows and movies.
I will start with the positive aspects of baby talk and then I will move on to the aspects which I do not prefer.
Positives of baby talk for language development
Babies are hearing new sounds everyday. The pitch variation and slow drawn out sounds of baby talk holds the attention of babies/toddlers. They are fascinated by this intonation. It can also give them clues about the meaning of a sentence as a baby won’t be able to understand all words right away.
When using baby talk, certain sounds are exaggerated more than others allowing babies to start differentiating between sounds. It also makes it easier for a baby to determine where one word ends and another begins. Some researchers believe that babies whose parents used baby talk have larger vocabularies as toddlers.
Also, when babies first learn to speak, their words and even sounds are not clear. This is not because they were exposed to baby talk, it is because they physically are unable to produce certain sounds because the muscles of the mouth, tongue, throat, etc are not fully developed. Babies naturally coo in attempts to communicate. This often gets parents to reciprocate with baby talk. Even when a parent coos back in complete gibberish, the baby is taking it all in. It is also teaching the baby the give and take aspects of a conversation.
Babies are smart and are ready to communicate before they are physically able to!
Using short sentences with repetition signals to the baby which words are important and therefore should be remembered. For example “I see your shoes. Do you see your shoes. Those are nice shoes.”
With all of that being said there are some things that I (and I am sure most child development experts would agree) believe aren’t great about baby talk.
Negatives of baby talk for language development
Baby talk is fine if your child is a baby (not a toddler or a preschooler). To me a baby is under 12 months of age. For the purposes of baby talk I would say a baby is between 0 and 9 months of age. A baby actually understands a lot more than they are given credit for. Studies have shown that when babies around 6 months of age are given a card with 4 pictures on it and the word for one of these pictures is spoken, the baby will look longer at the picture matching the spoken word than any of the other pictures on the card.
Because babies understand more than adults often think, it makes sense to talk to them the way you would talk to an older child or adult. You can still use some more exaggerated inflection and intonation to keep their attention but you do not need to use sentences like “did baby go poopy?”, why not say “did you poop?” instead.
Your goal should be to model appropriate vocabulary and grammar to your child, especially as your child gets older.
Start using real words as soon as possible. Try to cut out true made up words like “num num”, “tata”, etc. Saying words like “uh oh” or “doggy” are fine. The more real words your child hears, the larger his vocabulary will be.
Also, refrain from speaking in the 3rd person. This one is probably my biggest pet peeve when it comes to baby talk.
Yes, I did it when my kids were babies, but only until they were about 6 months old. After that I felt comfortable in assuming that they knew who I was.
I have been in Kindergarten classrooms where the teacher is still speaking in 3rd person. I used to cringe when I walked in to the classroom to get the student I was seeing for a therapy session and I would hear the teacher (Mrs. Smith for example) say something like “Mrs. Smith wants everyone to go sit on the carpet”.
Meanwhile the child I am working with for speech therapy has a goal of “to correctly use the pronouns I, me and my in sentences”, for example. You can see how hard it is for a child to learn the correct use of pronouns when he is not hearing it used correctly by adults.
Think about it, would you say to your friend “Mary wants to go out for lunch, would Beth like to join Mary?”. I doubt it. You would say “I want to go out for lunch, would you like to join me?”.
Small children, including babies will learn to understand when you speak to them the way you would speak to others.
While on the topic of baby talk, I want to mention something called telegraphic speech.
Back when I was in school we were taught to use telegraphic speech, especially when working with children with a language delay. Telegraphic speech is when grammar is omitted from a sentence. For example “Where did your ball go?” vs. “where ball go?”.
However, researcher Marc Fey* and others recently found that using telegraphic speech may actually hinder a child’s language development, especially if the child has a language delay.
A child needs to hear correct grammar in order for them to use it.
Should I stop the baby talk?
No, baby talk is fine and can be beneficial to learning a language. The bottom line is:
- use short sentences that contain grammar
- use intonation and pitch variations
- once a baby is older than 6 months refrain from speaking in the 3rd person
- use real words (they don’t have to be the most complex form of the word, but make sure it is a real word)
- imitate your babies sounds to encourage back and forth conversation when your baby is under 6-9 months, but make sure you are also using real sentences with grammar and real words.
Remember to play and have fun with your baby! There are so many great things for her to learn.
Not everyone will agree with me regarding baby talk and that is fine. Also, some of the ages I use in this article are meant to serve as guidelines. Let me know what your thoughts are in the comments below? Will you or did you use baby talk?
*Fey, M. (2008) The (mis-)use of telegraphic input in child language intervention. Revista de Logopedia, Foniatría y Audiología 2008, Vol. 28, No. 4, 218-230