Parentese and Infant Led Communication
Adults that spend time with young children will notice a difference in the way that they talk to other adults and the way that they talk to babies. Adults draw out and exaggerate words, their pitch is higher and speech is slower and emphasized. What we might think of as baby talk actually has a formal name – parentese (formerly “motherese”).
Characterized by long vowel sounds, short consonant sounds, and high pitch, parentese is not used solely by parents and caregivers. It is also not taught or learned. When most adults interact with young children and infants they automatically revert to this type of speech. It is not “goo goo, gaa gaa” but real language that helps babies to learn the meaning and cadence of spoken words.
Parents and adults speak this way without even realizing how they are supporting language development. People speak versions of parentese across languages and continents, suggesting it is inherent and important to language development.
How does Parentese Help Babies Learn Language ?
A study from the University of Washington focused on parents from the United States, Sweden, and Russia and looked at the way parentese benefits infants:
Expanded vowel sounds allow parents to produce more vowel pronunciations without overlapping other vowels. When adults speak, it involves reproducing complicated phonetic sounds. Infants do not have the fully developed range of an adult vocal tract. Infants are listening to the adapted parentese, then transforming the sounds they hear into “frequencies they can use”. Theoretically, the babies are doing something quite complicated – analyzing and transforming the speech they hear into sounds they can produce
The use of a higher pitch may be effective as an attention grabber. Experiments have shown that babies will listen longer to music presented in a higher pitch. This could be because it is easier to pick out higher pitched noises out of background noise, or because it is perceived as less aggressive. This preference could also be because speaking in a higher pitch produces noises similar to an infant’s own. As infants are constantly practicing and fine tuning their own voices, they have a bias for sounds that are similar.
Parentese also may better convey emotion – giving extra clues as to the intention of the speaker. In a cross – cultural experiment, researchers played recordings of American English speaking mothers speaking to their infants, to adults of the Shuar – an indigenous South American group. The Shuar adults were able to classify the speakers’ intention into four categories – prohibition, approval, comfort, or attention despite not speaking English.
By talking to infants, information is being shared, analyzed, and absorbed. Developmentally this is an essential process to build language understanding.
What Happens if Parentese is Absent ?
In the mid – 1990’s two researchers, Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley looked at language achievement across different socio-economic groups. Children from the lowest socio-economic groups were exposed to a third less language than those in other groups. By the time these children reached age 4 there would be an estimated 30 million word gap between them and children from more privileged backgrounds. This gap, they theorized, was responsible for poorer academic outcomes throughout grade school and into adulthood for this group of children.
The study – called “The Early Catastrophe” was later found to be problematic in several ways. The sample size was small and the word gap was not as large as originally suggested, but it did lead to changes in how people looked at language development.
As a result of this study and others like it, the consensus on language development and literacy is that early intervention is important. Young children and babies should be exposed to language rich environments to help their development – not only linguistically, but also socially and emotionally. In British Columbia, the Strong Start program invites families with children 0 – 5 to participate in play based learning, providing “rich learning environments” at no cost to families. Similar programs have been founded across Canada and the United States with the purpose of closing the language gap and hopefully improving academic achievement across at risk populations.
What about screen time and language development ?
So if children need language input, can they get that from a tablet or computer ?
Researchers followed over 2,000 children in Canada from birth up to the age of 5, with screen time assessments performed from age 2 years onward. Screen time was defined as time children spent watching or interacting with any type of screen-based devices, such as tablets, TVs, or smartphones.
Overall they found that increased screen time was generally associated with poorer developmental test scores.
In Canada, the Canadian Paedriatic Society has made the following recommendations: For children under two years old screen time is not recommended. For children two to five years old limit screen time to less than one hour a day. For children older than five limit screen time to less than two hours a day.
However, screen time is not necessarily causation for poor developmental test scores. More recent guides for families state
The evidence base for a direct ‘toxic’ effect of screen time is contested, and the evidence of harm is often overstated. The majority of the literature that does exist looks only at television screen time.
Evidence is weak for a threshold to guide children and parents to the appropriate level of screen time, and we are unable to recommend a cut-off for children’s screen time overall.
Many of the apparent connections between screen time and adverse effects may be mediated by lost opportunities for positive activities (socialising, exercise, sleep) that are displaced by screen time.
For any new parents concerned about their child glancing at a television screen while you are holding them, it doesn’t look like you need to worry. Healthy habits should be modeled, and most importantly, a screen can’t replace interactions between children and adults.
(A helpful guide for establishing healthy screen time is here.)
Talk to Your Baby
With all the anxiety of new parenthood, my takeaway from this research is to talk to baby George. Also, sometimes trusting your instincts is the way forward. Parentese was not developed by an expert, it is something that most adults do instinctively, and its also good for their kids.
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