May 29, 2024

Babytalk is Real, So Don’t Be Embarrassed: It’s Science!

Seraphina Chong 26'

Photo Courtesy of Seraphina Chong.

When you greet a baby, I’m pretty sure you don’t just say, “Hi,” as if you were in the Bistro or at Lane. Instead, you say: Hiiiiiiiii!!! with an increasingly high-pitched voice. Have you ever wondered why the sudden voice change or stopped to think, “Why does this feel so natural?” My friend, welcome to the world of babytalk—or, as the scientists have termed it—infant-directed speech (IDS). In a 2017 article titled, “5 Reasons I Refused to Use Baby Talk with My Kid, Even When He Was a Baby,” Jessica Blankenship argues that babytalk not only makes a person look dumb, but it teaches the child bad language and grammar skills. Is that true?  

Before answering, let’s first look into a few defining characteristics of IDS when compared to adult-directed speech (ADS) and how this affects babies. In a 2014 study by Shim et al. (2014), 20 Korean mothers read a 45-syllable sentence from the story, “The Hare and the Tortoise.” The mothers had to read it twice to a 12–48-month-old infant. The catch? The second time they read it, they must imagine that the infant is in front of them. Results found that mothers who read to a real infant had a loudness of around 64 dB, while reading to an imagined infant resulted in an average of 61 dB. When mothers would cover about 5 and half syllables per second when reading to a real infant, they would only cover 4 and half when reading to an imagined one. Moreover, the pitch for IDS ranged from 196 Hz to 289 Hz, which was higher than the usual 159 Hz to 233 Hz of ADS. A final characteristic of IDS is its tendency to repeat units of action, like “twist” and “push button,” instead of entire sentences when trying to instruct a child (Brand et al. 2009) 

What’s even crazier? The characteristics of IDS are universal! A 1988 study by Grieser and Kuhl compared the IDS of Mandarin (a tonal language) with German and English (non-tonal languages). The results of Mandarin IDS came out to be 247 Hz, 1.1 seconds per phrase, and 1.1 seconds per pause. Compared to German IDS, for instance, these findings are staggeringly similar with German having an average frequency of 257 Hz, a phrase duration of around 1.1 seconds, and a pause duration of about 1.5 seconds. Although halfway across the world, Chinese mothers were speaking the exact same way as German moms! 

So, back to the original question: Does speaking to a baby in IDS negatively impact their language skills? It’s the exact opposite. The pitch of IDS is thought to help babies find their voice. In a 2021 experiment with 24 infants aged 6-7 months-old, Polka et al. found that infants preferred to listen to the /i/ vowel when the pitch specified a vocal tract that was similar in size and length to their own. By speaking in IDS, then, parents provide an example for their young, cluing them in on the sounds they would be producing if the infants were to speak (Clark 2021). However, this clue also builds a growing child’s vocabulary. In a 2018 study, researchers observed how parents who received coaching sessions in IDS had their 6-month-olds babbling more often and possessing a greater vocabulary by 14-months compared to the children of uncoached parents (Eckart 2018). Such a finding supports the notion that pitch peaks are reliable “indicators of word boundaries in English” (Thiessen et al. 2005). Thus, when parents are coached to effectively speak IDS, it helps the child to isolate words and ultimately leads to improved language acquisition. 

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But IDS adds even more than linguistical value—it is a powerful (and very important!) emotional source for the baby. IDS has been observed to encourage children to persevere, seemingly replacing any negative emotions with hope. In a study by Filippa et al. (2011), they found that a mother’s voice induced hormones in a child to relieve pain! During a time when pre-mature babies had to undergo heel prick tests to draw blood for health checks, mothers who spoke to their babies using IDS quantitatively decreased the infants’ stress—or cortisol—levels and increased the level of oxytocin, a hormone involved in maternal-infant bonding (Seltzer et al. 2012). Amazingly, the mother’s voice empowered the child to overcome the pain and focus instead on the mother’s presence to draw a sense of peace and security. The power of a mother’s voice to soothe her child seems to continue even when the child is much older, with a study by Seltzer et al. (2012) noting the low cortisol levels in daughters aged 7 and 12 who had interacted face-to-face with their mothers after a stressful event. Overall, these studies illustrate the incredible capacity of IDS to produce confident, secure, and loving children.  

We have learned that IDS has specific characteristics that develop a child’s speaking skills; however, that picture is not yet complete. The greatest aspect of infant-directed speech is its testimony to God’s incredible design! As Bickerton argues, the human brain has an “innate grammatical machinery (Pinker 1994, 23). Humans are wired for language, and in the presence of a baby, this wiring produces what scientists have termed “infant-directed speech,” which instinctively helps us to speak in the right pitch, pause at the right time, and repeat the right words. Every day, millions of people use IDS without knowing why. Thus, from language acquisition to parental bonding, IDS displays God’s everlasting love and care for His Creation. Though many people remain unaware of the positive effects of IDS on child development, their God-given instincts nevertheless instruct them daily in this powerful device. Because our Creator is all-knowledgeable with wisdom higher than ours, He turns something as simple as following an instinct into an educational experience for the littlest child.   

Works Cited 

Blankenship, J. 2017. “5 Reasons I Refused To Use Baby Talk With My Kid, Even When He Was A Baby,” Available from: www.romper.com/p/5-reasons-i-refused-to-use-baby-talk-with-my-kid-even-when-he-was-a-baby-76751. Accessed: 10 December 2023.  

Brand, R.J., A. McGee, J.F. Kominsky, K. Briggs, A. Gruneisen, and T. Orbach. 2009. Repetition in infant-directed action depends on the goal structure of the object: evidence for statistical regularities. Gesture 9:337-353.  

Clark, A. 2021. “Using ‘baby talk’ with infants isn’t just cute: It could help them learn to make words,” Available from: news.ufl.edu/2021/12/the-importance-of-baby-talk/. Accessed: 10 December 2023. 

Filippa, M., M.G. Monaci, C. Spagnuolo, P. Serravalle, R. Daniele, and D. Grandjean. 2021. Maternal speech decreases pain scores and increases oxytocin levels in preterm infants during painful procedures. Scientific Reports 11:1-.  

Grieser D.L. and P.K. Kuhl. 1988. Maternal speech to infants in a tonal language: support for universal prosodic features in motherese. Developmental Psychology 24:14-20.  

Pinker, S. 1994. The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language. HarperCollins Publishers, New York, NY. 548 pp.  

Polka, L., M. Masapollo, and L. Ménard. 2021. Setting the stage for speech production: infants prefer listening to speech sounds with infant vocal resonances. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research 65:109-120.  

Thiessen, E.D., E.A. Hill, and J.R. Saffran. 2005. Infant-directed speech facilitates word segmentation. Infancy 7:53-71.  

Seltzer, L.J., A.R. Prososki, T.E. Ziegler, and S.D. Pollak. 2012. Instant messages vs. speech: hormones and why we still need to hear each other. Evolution and Human Behavior 33:42-45.   

Shim, H.J., G.J. Lee, J.K. Hwang, and D.H. Ko. 2014. Acoustic characteristics of Motherese. Journal of the Korean Society of Speech Sciences 6:189-194. 

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