People often tell new parents to avoid sing-song "baby talk" with their new addition to the family because it will slow the child's language development. But evidence shows it does the opposite; baby talk plays an important role in development and babies prefer it to other types of speech.
Who uses baby talk?
Scientists used to call baby talk "motherese". Now it's referred to as infant-directed speech because not only mothers, but fathers, strangers and even three-year-old children use it when talking to a baby. Just about everyone uses it, even if they're trying not to.
What is baby talk?
Baby talk has shorter sentences, simpler words and more repetition. But it's not only baby words like "tummy" that make it attractive to babies. Much more important, especially in the first 18 months or so, are the sounds of baby talk. Baby talk has a characteristic structure, rhythm and use of emotion.
Compared with adult-directed speech, infant-directed speech has more emotion, irrespective of the actual words used. It has a higher pitch and more up-and-down patterns, which attract infants' attention.
How old is too old for baby talk?
We adjust the ingredients mix within baby talk over infants' first year to match their developmental level. We continue to do so as children become older and their language knowledge becomes more advanced.
The developmental adjustments mothers make seem to be more emotional at three months, approving at six months, and directive (“yes, look at the doggie”) at nine months. How mothers talk to their baby is automatically in sync with their baby.
Don't worry about when to stop using baby talk – your child's behaviour will guide you. This is not because parents are following some child development manual; mother and infant have a highly developed conversational dance, and usually they work it out between them.
No matter how you do it, or the language you speak, it all results in baby talk. When each party attends, observes, listens, the dance is smooth. When one party doesn’t or can’t act on feedback from the other, toes get stepped on.
Extract from Denis Burnham, Professor in Speech & Language Development, Western Sydney University