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The more parents exaggerate vowels and raise the pitch of their voices when talking to babies, the more the babies babble, new research shows. Common advice to new parents is that the more words babies hear, the faster their vocabulary grows. The new findings show that what spurs early language development isn’t so much the quantity of words as the style of speech and social context in which speech occurs.
Researchers examined thousands of 30-second snippets of verbal exchanges between parents and babies. They measured parents’ use of a regular speaking voice versus an exaggerated, animated baby talk style, and whether speech occurred one-on-one between parent and child or in group settings.
“The prevalence of baby talk in one-on-one conversations with children is linked to better language development,” says co-author Patricia Kuhl, co-director of the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences at the University of Washington.
The more parents lengthened vowel sounds — for example “How are youuuuu?”— and raised voice pitch, the more the 1-year-olds babbled, which is a forerunner of word production. Baby talk was most effective when a parent spoke with a child individually, without other adults or children around.
For the study, which will be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Developmental Science, 26 babies about 1 year of age wore audio recorders that collected sounds from the children’s auditory environment for eight hours a day for four days.
The researchers used special software to examine 4,075 30-second intervals of recorded speech and analyzed whether baby talk — also known as “parentese” — or regular voice was used, and other variables.
When the babies were 2 years old, parents filled out questionnaires measuring how many words their children knew. Infants who had heard more baby talk knew more words. In the study, 2-year-olds in families who spoke the most baby talk in a one-on-one social context knew 433 words, on average, compared with the 169 words recognized by 2-year-olds in families who used the least baby talk in one-on-one situations.
Parents can use baby talk when going about everyday activities, saying things like, “Where are your shoooes?,” “Let’s change your diiiiaper” and “Oh, this tastes goooood!”” emphasizing important words and speaking slowly using a happy tone of voice.
“It’s not just talk, talk, talk at the child,” Kuhl says. “It’s more important to work toward interaction and engagement around language. You want to engage the infant and get the baby to babble back. The more you get that serve and volley going, the more language advances.”