Baby talk is a variation of adult language, invented by adults to engage with nonverbal beings and to teach children to talk. Parents and caregivers seem to instinctively know how to talk to the baby. Even mothers who say they don’t use baby talk with their babies actually do it, only unconsciously. Linguist and anthropologist Peter Farb showed in his research that six very different languages, English and Spanish, two Asian languages, Comanche, and the language of a non-literate community in Siberia, have their own version of baby talk. Can something that comes so natural be wrong to do?
Recent studies published claim that speaking to young children using baby talk can slow down their language development. For example, a baby may recognize “dedeng” but not “milk.” Or when a child steps into preschool, she will tend to use short phrases such as “Mama, poo-poo” or “What that?” instead of the prober sentences to use. “Babies are constantly looking for language clues in context and sound,” said Jill Lany, psychologist and director of the baby lab at the University of Notre Dame, in a press release. “My research suggests that there are some surprising clues in the sound stream that may help babies learn the meanings of words. They can distinguish different kinds of words like nouns and verbs by information in that sound stream.”
While this is likely true, it does not mean that baby talk is bad. In fact, scientists have discovered that hearing baby talk helps babies learn language. Research shows that babies prefer to listen to our silly baby talk from birth, says Dr. Golinkoff. Because of its sing song tone and exaggerated vowels, it stands out in the environment compared to the way adults speak to one another. And since baby talk draws an infant’s attention better, a baby’s face to face conversation with an adult becomes a warmer and more enjoyable interaction. Adults share a lot of positive emotions while talking to a baby when using baby talk. This kind of interaction enables babies to make a more meaningful connection between spoken words and emotions. Also, long before babies understand the meanings of words or begin to use words to communicate, they can already adjust to the natural rhythm of voices. They can differentiate, for example, a perky voice that is actually an adult playing peek-a-boo with her, or a soothing voice that lulls her to sleep. As the baby grows, she will be able to identify a firm warning voice telling her that it is not good to put everything in her mouth.
As with most things, something in between the opposite ends of the argument is most likely true. As a compromise that will help your baby get the most from his/her interaction with you, when baby talking to young children, use more complex sentences. This may set a better example and improve their language skills. That way, babies will learn the right terms and forms of language early on and develop higher language comprehension further as they grow. For example, using the right words early on for identifying body parts (i.e. tummy versus stomach), and using simple but complete sentences instead of phrases. And remember this, the tone, cadence, and closeness of baby talk is what makes it good for babies and grownups, its more about bonding than language per say. As you child grows, account by development by adjusting the way you speak to them and how you bond, as you will have many more options.
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