If you’ve ever been around a newborn infant, you probably found yourself engaging in some sort of baby talk. Most adults can’t seem to help themselves. Psychologists call this kind of talk directed at a baby “infant-directed speech.” And believe it or not, they’ve studied its impact on an infant’s development.
The findings are not surprising — the more you talk to your baby, the better language skills they’ll develop sooner. And the more quickly babies develop good language skills, the sooner they start learning.
Golinkoff and colleagues (2015) examined the research in this area of infant-directed speech (or what most of us call “baby talk”) to see what scientists have discovered about its impact on the baby. This is speech that is specifically made to the infant and usually differs significantly from how we talk to other adults. Does it help any, or are we just doing it to really entertain the infant (and ourselves)?
What they found was that baby talk:
- “Promotes infant attention to language
- “Fosters social interaction between infants and caregivers
- “Informs infants about various aspects of their native language by heightening distinctions relative to the speech addressed to adults”
Baby Talk: Quality Matters as Much as Quantity
So if having your infant just hear people talking is important, why not just sit them down in front of the TV or in front of a radio?
A body of research has shown that the total amount of speech heard by an infant is highly correlated with language outcomes. Children whose parents talk less to them […] tend to have smaller vocabularies by age 3. This difference is highly correlated with socioeconomic status and academic achievement.
The researchers note this is “known as the ’30 million word gap.'” But they also caution that you can’t just sit your infant down in front of a TV or computer for them to hear words. It’s the direct social interaction with another human being that seems to matter most. In looking at the research, they note that “quality accounted for more of the variance in language outcomes a year later than did the quantity of the language children heard.”
The Beneficial Effects of Baby Talk
The beneficial effects of talking baby talk to your baby are found throughout the research literature. Golinkoff et al. (2015) note that baby talk:
[…] enables 21-month-old children to learn new words that they could not learn in adult-directed speech, and younger infants better remember words they have heard spoken in [baby talk].
Interacting and really paying attention to your baby along with baby talk seems to be equally as important too:
When an adult responds to an infant’s pointing and demonstrates a function for that referent object, infants are more likely to learn the function than when the adult demonstrates the function of another object the infant did not point to.
Summed up, here’s why the researchers think baby talk is ultimately good for your infant:
Given its exaggerated perceptual qualities, [baby talk] is an attractor for infants’ attention, influencing the time they spend listening to language. […]
As its use is embedded in social relationships, [baby talk] may become associated with positive interactions that both foster the burgeoning relationships between adults and infants and promote infants’ analysis of the linguistic stream.
Finally, [baby talk’s] acoustic properties, in the context of its exaggerated features and its role as a carrier of social information, heighten infants’ ability to extract linguistic regularities.
Translated from research-speak, the researchers mean that the baby is more attuned to your speaking to them because of the way you speak to the baby is different than the way you speak to adults. The tone is different, and there’s often more questions. It also shows the baby a positive social interaction with another human being early on. Last, the tone and exaggerated features of baby talk lets the baby better understand the building blocks of language — helping them learn it sooner.
So keep that baby-talk coming — it does a baby good!
Golinkoff et al. (2015). (Baby)Talk to Me: The Social Context of Infant-Directed Speech and Its Effects on Early Language Acquisition. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 24. doi: 10.1177/0963721415595345