Does baby talk boost your baby’s language development? Well, it depends. Hear what the experts have to say.
WORDS TEO KUAN YEE
If you are a parent of a young child (or a parent-to-be) and are sceptical if you should ‘baby talk’ with your little bub, the answer is: yes. Baby talk’ referred to as motherese or infant-directed, benefits young ones, especially between infancy and toddlerhood. When used appropriately, it helps your baby to pick up language communication skills during interaction time with parents or the caregiver.
“One of the earliest joys of parenthood is that moment when your baby first responds to you by smiling or cooing back at you. The communication between you and your baby is the first most important step towards your infant developing his language and enjoying social interaction. This forms the basis of learning that will take place in later life,” explains Alia Contractor, senior speech and language therapist at Kaleidoscope Therapy Centre.
Moona Islam, Dynamics Therapy Centre's senior speech therapist, too encourages parents to engage in baby talk with their little ones. Says Moona: “This style includes using symbolic or environmental sounds, for instance, “moo” for cow, “brmm brrmm” for car, keywords instead of long sentences, commenting rather than asking questions, simplifying grammar and using lots of repetition especially new words.”
Charlotte Pou, senior speech therapist, Child Development Unit, National University Hospital describes ‘baby talk’ as shorter and simpler utterances that are usually single words. Examples are phrases such as “baby play!”, “Daddy sleep”, “drink milk!”, “car go!”. The pitch used tends to be higher and more varied; it adopts a slower pace with longer pauses between the words and is more melodious.
More than just the combination of the higher pitch of voice and slower rate of speech,
baby talk also encompasses facial expressions and affection of the parent or caregiver.
More Pros than Cons
“Because of the more exaggerated qualities of baby talk, babies remember and look longer at individuals who are interacting with them. This greater responsiveness helps maintain positive adult-infant interaction, influencing the time they spend listening to language,” highlights Pou.
Due to the slower speech, varying voices pitches and purposeful highlighting of specific words in baby talk, babies gain better ability to recognise and process the words and grow attuned to language structures and speech sounds. All these form the crucial building blocks with which language learning occurs for the baby before he progresses to grasp more complex language concepts.
Parents can engage in baby talk with their child anytime, anywhere and in everyday conversations, points out Moona. The communication style is for everybody, such as the adults and older siblings, who play a big part in baby’s life to teach them new words. “Interacting and talking to your children will aid the development of their language skills, which can improve literacy skills required to succeed in school,” highlights Moona.
It’s as Easy as ABC
Although it might seem like an effort for the adult to get into the baby talk mode initially, it gets easier with practice.
“For some parents and adults, adapting their communication style with babies and young children may feel unnatural at first or difficult to modify. The key to this is to get down to your child’s level, follow their lead and focus on the present activity,” advises Moona.
Moona provides some tips: comment using only keywords such as naming objects and actions e.g. “blowing bubbles”; use diminutive forms of words i.e. simplifying words or altering meaning to convey endearment e.g. “nana” for banana which would otherwise be too long for a young child to learn initially or “horsey” for horse. Talk about activities that are happening in the here and now, typically around daily routine activities, for instance, feeding, bath time, dressing such as “shoes on” and also during play; talking about abstract activities, for instance, in the past or the future should be avoided.
A Dynamic Process
Experts highlight that the use of ‘baby talk’ should evolve with time and baby’s development stages. “Caregivers should adjust their speech complexity such as the use of complete sentences, in accordance with the child’s age and his feedback,” advises Pou.
Before baby turns two, the manner in which caregivers interact with the baby prevails over the type of language use (i.e. the pitch of voice, the rate of speech, facial expressions, affection). During the second year of baby’s development, the quantity of language input is the most important. In the third year, the quality of input (i.e. word diversity and language complexity) matters the most.
Contractor advises parents to read stories or share colourful picture books with their infants to boost reading skills in later life. Singing nursery rhymes and action songs, going out and about exploring different places and talking about them, also help them in their development.
Parents should avoid relying too much on technology such as audio video aids
to teach language to their babies as studies show that speaking to babies
and interacting with them is the best way for them to learn.
“Playing people games such as peek-a-boo, encouraging and celebrating babies attempts at speech, not criticising mistakes and allowing opportunities for little ones to socialise with other children all aid language development,” says Contractor.
“Children learn language through imitation, therefore the more exposure they get to people talking to them in different situations and during different activities, the more beneficial it is for them,” adds Contractor.
Limited interaction with your baby can lead to delayed language skills in children, warns Moona. “It is very important to give your babies and children as many experiences as possible. For children to learn new words and develop their vocabulary, they first have to hear the words, so get talking and more importantly have fun with your baby. Your baby will respond to your voice, changes in tone, even facial expressions and this will create more interactive experiences,” explains Moona. While some children may be late talkers, there are important developmental milestones that should be reached by certain ages, advises Moona. If your child shows difficulties in any of the communication areas below, consult a speech and language therapist.