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Parentese - More Than Just “Baby Talk”

Feb 5, 2022 How many of you have heard of the term, “baby talk”? You know, where you say “goo-goo-ga-ga your widdle toes are weally, weally cute.”

As a speech pathologist, it would always make me cringe to hear parents talking to their babies in this way. Annoyance level notwithstanding, it’s just not good for early language development.

Research and studies have shown that talking to your child in a certain tone and pitch is healthy, but changing articulation patterns (substituting the /r/ sound for /w/), is not healthy and teaches your child the wrong way to speak.

When I was in graduate school, we called the “right” way to talk to children – motherese. Since it’s 2020, and we have more than one parent/guardian speaking to children this way, the term has been changed to “parentese.”  

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Changing articulation patterns is not healthy and teaches your child the wrong way to speak.

So What is ‘Parentese’? 

Parentese is when you talk to your baby using slow tempo, higher pitch, but you use real words and correct grammar. Many moms, dads, grandparents, older siblings, aunts, uncles, and babysitters speak parentese, intuitively aware that it helps the baby tune in socially and respond, even if only through babbling (1).

Parentese has three key characteristics:

  1. Speaking in a higher overall pitch. This pitch is generally a whole octave higher than how we would talk in a normal conversation with adults. 
  2. Intonation contours are very curvy. This means that the speech generally sounds very happy and excited. The highs are very high and the lows are very low. 
  3. The speed and tempo is much slower than you would expect. Giving pauses between words and phrases gives the baby time to process and even respond, even if those responses are coos and babbling. 

Encouraging the social language part of the brain is important when children are learning language. This area of the brain is actively engaged when you pause and allow the baby to respond in an appropriate time frame. Babies are wired to participate in conversation and seem to prefer when parents speak in parentese. 

Studies and Research about Parentese

Video source: CNN

In the above video, watch as baby Paul sits on his mom’s lap in an enclosed space. Paul is exposed to a woman on the one side of his body speaking eight seconds of parentese.

On the other side, he is exposed to a woman speaking eight seconds of normal speech. As he listens to both women speak, it is clear that he prefers the woman speaking in parentese.

He shows this by consistently turning his head in the direction of the woman who is speaking in motherese/parentese. You can even hear him cooing after the woman finishes talking to him. 

Patricia Kuhl’s lab has done studies that show when infants listen to speech, “not only does the auditory cortex area in their brain light up but the motor areas that will eventually speak light up,” she said, showing the baby is getting ready to talk back.

The more parents naturally use parentese in their homes when speaking to their children, the better and faster those language skills develop. So, it turns out that parentese is a social catalyst for language. It gets kids, not just listening, but talking.

Patricia Kuhl, the Co-Director of the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences at the University of Washington

Can you Learn to Speak Parentese with Coaching?

Yes! You can learn to speak to your child this way with a little bit of coaching. A study was published that showed when parents were coached, their children babbled more and had more words at 14-months-of-age than children whose parents did not use parentese.

In addition, Kuhl said, babies whose parents were coached had an average vocabulary of 100 words compared to the 60 words in the control group. That is almost twice the rate of gaining new words!

The study also showed that babies need to be engaged socially in order to learn language. For some reason, parentese makes the baby want to do that.

Their study is still continuing and the babies that were initially used, are now three-years-old and the kids who were in the coached group, are still way ahead of the kids whose parents were not coached to use parentese. 

Parent coaching boosts early language skills

An SLP’s Experience as a Mom       

As a speech pathologist, I am hypersensitive to my kids’ development, especially in the area of speech and language.

My daughter (3-years-old) and son (7 months) are typically developing children. I used/am using parentese with both of them.

My husband and family did not know the term parentese prior to our children being born. After I showed them and encouraged them to not talk to Nora and Nicholas in “baby talk,” they all used the same speaking patterns as I did. 

When someone doesn’t talk to my son in parentese, there’s a definite change in his reaction.

When speaking in parentese, he turns his head, smiles, laughs, and will even reach for the person. He also engages in social turn-taking – he will coo or scream if you talk to him in parentese.

If he is crying and we speak to him in a normal tone, he keeps crying. However, if we comfort him using parentese, he calms down quicker and starts to smile. My daughter had the same reaction when she was a baby. 

If you are interested in being coached in how to talk in parentese, I encourage you to reach out to a speech pathologist who can show you how to do that successfully.

The benefits for your child are significant and it’s a quick, easy way to boost speech development at home.

I also encourage you to download the Speech Blubs 2 App. We have tons of activities and resource materials for you to use with your kids that will increase social development, cognitive skills, and speech and language output!

The author’s views are entirely his or her own and may not necessarily reflect the views of Blub Blub Inc. All content provided on this website is for informational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for independent professional medical judgement, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website.

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