The Benefits of Parentese Speech

From Banana for Two, written by Ellen Mayer and illustrated by Ying-Hwa.

What is parentese?

Imagine you and your baby are getting ready to go outside. While you put on their coat and shoes, you speak to them and maintain eye contact. “How is my sweet baby today?” you say. “Are you getting dressed? Yes you are, yes you are! Do you see your shoes? Where are your shoes? There they are! Who looks so handsome? You do! You look sooo handsome!” Your baby giggles and waves in excitement when your tone changes. You mirror their smile and respond similarly when they babble back to you. This communicative exchange may come naturally to you and your baby, but it may be surprising to know you’re actually practicing key elements of parentese speech!

 

Parentese is a type of speech in which a parent or caregiver mixes proper, yet simple, grammar and words with exaggerated sounds and tones to communicate with their baby. This type of speech is used in virtually all languages and is often characterized by repetition, elongated vowels, high pitch, and slow tempo, which are most effective in face-to-face interactions. A strategic use of inflection also encourages back-and-forth exchanges between parent and baby in order to familiarize the child with typical patterns of conversation. Parentese can be spoken to babies as early as six months.

 

While past studies on language development have indicated the benefits of verbal exchanges between parents and their babies, new studies attempt to uncover the significance of tone and tempo.  Dr. Caroline Kistin, a researcher at Boston Medical Center and Boston University School of Medicine, notes, “Parentese also appears to engage infants differently than other types of speech, and the slow speed may afford more opportunities for back and forth conversational turns.” The strategic and intentional uses of tone and tempo that characterize parentese seem to captivate babies in a way that other ways of speaking do not.

 

What is the difference between parentese and “baby talk”?

Parentese and baby talk (also called babble) are both important factors in a baby’s early language development, although they differ in construction. Baby talk is usually defined by silly sounds and wording (like “goo goo ga ga”) that help a baby recognize different phonetic patterns and sounds. An infant may begin producing vowel sounds around two months as a result of their cooing and babbles. Baby talk is useful in developing an infant’s understanding of early patterns of communication, such as emotional tone and attention.

 

When babies are between four and seven months old they may begin to incorporate more sounds and pitches from an awareness of their babble with parents. This is where parentese can further aid in language development. With a familiarity of phonetic sounds and tone, babies absorb more language skills through parentese’s array of strategic tempos, pitches, inflections, and sentence structures.

 

An easy way to think of baby talk is simplifying, while parentese is emphasizing. For example, baby talk may sound like, “Does teddy want wa-wa?” Parentese, on the other hand, might be: “Does the teddy bear want water?”.

 

What are the benefits of using parentese?

While parentese and baby talk can both be positive for babies, recent studies uncover the added benefits of parentese speech, notably its association with improved language outcomes. A 2020 study from the University of Washington suggests that parentese is highly effective because the high pitch and slower tempo serve as a “social hook” for a baby’s brain and encourages their response.

 

Another study from the University of Washington, from 2018, found that when parents participated in a parentese coaching program, their infants babbled more and produced more words by fourteen months than babies whose parents received no direction in the technique. According to parent surveys taken when the infants reached eighteen months, the vocabulary of babies whose parents had received coaching averaged around one hundred words, whereas children in the control group averaged about sixty words.

 

An important secondary finding of the 2018 study is that language development associated with coaching was similar across socioeconomic groups. Previous research suggested that babies from low-income households or with limited access to education would develop language more slowly. While coaching itself may not be accessible to people across socioeconomic standings, there are many online resources to learn more about parentese speech.

 

Surprisingly, parentese has also been found to encourage motor planning in infants. Non-invasive brain scans on babies who had listened to their parents use parentese speech found that both the auditory centers of the brain and the areas for motor planning were activated. This suggests that babies practice the movements to produce speech long before they begin talking (as early as seven months).

 

Tips for practicing parentese speech

  • Make sure you and your baby can easily and comfortably look at each other. It’s helpful for your baby to see your mouth moving!
  • Use words that describe what you and your child are doing together.
  • Let your baby lead and take their cues when they signal they’re listening.
  • Exaggerate the sounds in words to work in baby talk. Speak softly and slowly and extend vowel sounds.
  • Transition between adult speech and baby talk as your converse with your baby. Your baby will start to differentiate when their attention is being called for.
  • Remember the goal is to involve your baby in conversation, even if they don’t understand exactly what you’re saying.
  • Do as much research as you can or become involved with parentese coaching! Studies show that the more educated parents are on properly practicing parentese speech, the more language development skills a child acquires.

 

Many parents naturally use a manner of speaking that incorporates baby talk and parentese. Conducting additional research and to enhance these manners of speaking will serve to improve your baby’s language development and vocabulary. Your engagement is a powerful tool in fostering communication skills in your baby!

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