Parentese: What Is It and Why You Should Do It
By Nicole Overy, MS, CFY-SLP
Kids Place West Speech-Language Pathologist
When you talk to a baby, you’ll likely use a high-pitched voice, draw out your vowels, and speak with a musical prosody. You’ll probably face the baby directly and use exaggerated facial expressions. This way of speaking, called “parentese,” comes naturally. Despite this, I have heard concerns regarding baby talk: Isn’t it too silly or obnoxious? Wouldn’t it be better to talk to children like they are adults? In fact, research has shown that there is true value to parentese in regards to a child’s language development.
It helps babies learn language. Drawing out vowels and varying pitch helps children learn where one word ends and another begins. We are also emphasizing, giving children clear models of the sounds that make up words. Speaking face-to-face with a baby and making eye contact teaches them skills for social interaction. Essentially, parentese highlights many important parts of language use.
It encourages motor planning. A study by Patricia Kuhl at the University of Washington showed that when people use parentese, important language centers are activated in babies’ brains. Non-invasive brain scans showed that not only do the auditory (or listening) areas of a baby’s brain light up—the motor-planning (or movement-planning) areas light up as well! This shows that babies are actually rehearsing the movements to produce speech as early as 7 months, long before they begin talking.
Babies love it. Speaking in this way helps to draw a child’s attention. Think about it: have you ever tried to speak to a baby as if they were an adult, maintaining an appropriate distance and speaking with completely unexaggerated pitch and vowels? In most cases, the baby won’t be too interested.
Emphasize, don’t simplify. While parentese is great, we don’t want to simplify our speech too much. It is not necessary to speak to a child with incorrect pronunciation: for example, “Look at da wittle cutie!” It is more beneficial to provide accurate models of speech: “Look at the little cutie!” On the same note, you shouldn’t use telegraphic speech or over-simplify sentences. An example of this is saying “Dolly want milk?” when playing with your child and their doll. Instead, produce the grammatically accurate sentence: “Does the dolly want milk?” Although it seems more complex, this will make it easier for children to pick up on the patterns of language use.
This method of speaking is important for all children, but can be especially important if your child has or is at risk for a language delay or developmental disorder. So embrace the tradition of parentese! Even though at times it may feel silly, it is actually the most logical way to encourage language development in the brains of little ones.