Do you ever notice the shift in your voice that happens when you talk to a baby? Or the way that your eyes grow big and you’re suddenly moving your head as you speak to the baby in this high-pitched, silly voice? Well, there is a name for the way that you change your voice and facial expressions when you talk to a cute baby, and there is even scientific support suggesting that it is beneficial to the young child for language development and comprehension.
Child or infant-directed speech, colloquially called “parentese” or “motherese,” is the often instinctual way in which you change your voice when you talk to an infant, toddler, or young child. This is also commonly referred to as “baby talk.” Child-directed speech is the variation in one’s voice tone that happens when talking to a young child. It includes a higher pitch paired with a more melodic, emotionally-charged tone (Dewar, 2015). Along with the variation in tone and pitch, child-directed speech includes a slower speech speed in which specifically the pronunciation of vowel sounds are exaggerated and stretched or drawn out (Dewar, 2015). Not only is the way in which a person talks different when speaking to a young child or infant, but the content and syntax of the language used differs than when talking to adults as well. According to Dewar (2015), when talking to an infant, toddler, or young child, shorter and simpler phrases or utterances are used, and they are often more repetitive. Along with simpler phrases, oftentimes target words are positioned at the end of sentences, or are used in isolation in order to give them more emphasis (Dewar, 2017). In addition to the way in which words are actually spoken, child or infant-directed speech also encompasses the way in which the entire face is used when communicating. A person’s facial expressions are often more demonstrative, emotional, and animated when talking to a young child. The way in which the eyes and mouth are exaggerated, coupled with the variation of speech, makes for a more expressive face, and a more comprehensive and interesting message overall for the infant.
According to the literature, there are many positive reasons for using child-directed speech when talking to an infant, toddler, or young child. The higher pitch and melodic, emotional tone are an attention grabber for the child, and helps convey more clear messages and emotions (Dewar, 2015). It helps draw more attention to the face of the speaker, and helps the infant focus better. Because of the variation in pitch and tone, along with the more expressive face, young children are better able to grasp the emotional intention of the speech, as well as pay more attention to the speaker for a longer period of time (Dewar, 2015).
Using child-directed speech when speaking to infants, toddlers, and young children has been associated with positive developmental outcomes for children later in life. Child-directed speech has been shown to help with speech and language development, as well as comprehension (Dewar, 2015). The exaggerated pitches used can serve as strong signals for infants in development and communication in the early months after birth (Cooper & Aslin, 1994). Babies also experience enhanced brain activity in regions of the brain associated with processing auditory messages when the person speaking to them is using characteristics of child-directed speech (Lloyd-Fox, Széplaki-Köllőd, Yin, & Csibra, 2015). The slower speech pattern that is often used in child-directed speech also helps with word discrimination and segmentation for young children (Dewar, 2015). This in turn helps the young child to begin discriminating between different speech sounds and builds their ability to detect boundaries and recognize distinct clauses within a stream of words and overall speech (Dewar, 2015). Additionally, the repetitive nature of child-directed speech helps with enhancing the child’s vocabulary (Dewar, 2015).
While child-directed speech may feel silly while you do it, it has been shown to have some very important and positive developmental outcomes for young children. It is used all across the globe, and has been documented in a wide range of languages (Dewar, 2017). Not only is it beneficial to young children, but in a study conducted by Golinkoff and Alioto (1995), English speaking adults were also better able to identify and learn new words in Mandarin Chinese when they were spoken using characteristics of child-directed speech than when they were not. Furthermore, child-directed speech is not only something that is beneficial to younger and older people alike, but it has also been shown that its use can even strengthen your relationship with your dog (Grant, 2018)!