Science

Babies exposed to two languages prefer baby talk, study finds

It’s something that many parents do without thinking, but if you use ‘baby talk’ with your child, you may unknowingly be helping them to learn. 

A new study has revealed that babies really do prefer baby talk, and pay more attention to its exaggerated, sing-song tones.   

While previous research has shown that monolingual babies prefer baby talk, the new study found that it is also the case for babies exposed to two languages.    

Not only is it good to speak baby talk to engage an infant and help them learn, parents can use baby talk in two languages without making their offspring confused, the research reveals.  

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Babies will pay more attention to baby talk than regular speech, regardless of which languages they’re used to hearing, according to a study by UCLA’s Language Acquisition Lab and 16 other labs around the world 

WHAT IS BABY TALK? 

Baby talk is a certain style of speech employed by adults when talking to an infant.

It is characterised by higher and wider pitch, slower speech rate and a ‘sing song’ pattern of intonation that differentiates it from the more monotone style used when adults speak normally.

When parents or other caregivers use baby talk, they use normal language. But they make it simpler by repeating words a lot and speaking slower.

Baby talkers also exaggerate facial expressions – they open the mouth wider, raise eyebrows and smile a lot.

Scientists claim that talking to babies gives them advantages in life far beyond a larger vocabulary.

They say that chatting to babies under the age of one, helps them make friends, as well as making them brighter because they are better able to discover the world around them.

While some parents worry that teaching two languages could mean an infant won’t learn to speak on time, the new study shows bilingual babies are developmentally ‘on track’. 

‘Crucially for parents, we found that development of learning and attention is similar in infants, whether they’re learning one or two languages,’ said study author Megha Sundara at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

‘And, of course, learning a language earlier helps you learn it better, so bilingualism is a win-win.’ 

Baby talk uses proper words, but spoken in a drawn-out and exaggerated singsong tone. 

It’s used across most languages and cultures, but English has one of the most exaggerated forms, according to the research team.

‘Baby talk has a slower rate of speech across all languages, with more variable pitch, and it’s more animated and happy,’ Sundara said. ‘It varies mainly in how exaggerated it is.’

The study took place at 17 labs on four continents, in the US, Canada, Europe, Australia and Singapore.

Researchers observed 333 bilingual babies and 384 monolingual babies, ranging in age from six to nine months and 12 to 15 months. 

UCLA’s lab was the only one to provide data on bilingual babies who grew up hearing both English and Spanish. 

Sundara and Victoria Mateu, a UCLA assistant professor of Spanish and Portuguese, observed babies who were 12 to 15 months old.

Each baby would sit on a parent’s lap while recordings of an English-speaking mother, using either infant-directed speech or adult-directed speech, played from speakers on the left or the right. 

Computer tracking measured how long each baby looked in the direction of each sound – taken as an indication of their interest. 

‘The longer they looked, the stronger their preference,’ Mateu said. 

Some parents worry that teaching two languages could mean an infant won't learn to speak on time, but the new study shows bilingual babies are developmentally 'on track'

Some parents worry that teaching two languages could mean an infant won’t learn to speak on time, but the new study shows bilingual babies are developmentally ‘on track’

Researchers found that babies tended to pay more attention to the exaggerated sounds of infant-directed speech.

Also, the more bilingual babies had been exposed to English at home, the stronger their preference for infant-directed speech compared to adult-directed speech. 

This indicates not only that bilingual babies are familiar with one of their two languages. but that baby talk in that language is more interesting to them than normal talk. 

Dr Marina Kalashnikova from Western Sydney University explains the importance of baby talk

But they also found that even babies with no exposure to English preferred the English baby talk to the grown-up talk, Mateu said.

This suggests even just the sound characteristics of baby talk – the drawn-out syllables and sing-song tone – are more appealing to babies, even when they’re not familiar with the language being spoken.   

Interestingly, the findings also showed that six- to nine-month-old babies who had mothers with higher levels of education preferred baby talk more than babies whose mothers had less education.

‘We suspect that perhaps the mothers with higher education levels spoke more to the babies and used infant-directed speech more often,’ Mateu said.

The fact babies from all over the world were included in the research project strengthened the results, according to the UCLA team.

‘When you do language research, you want to know that the results aren’t just some quirk of the language you’re studying,’ Sundara said.  

The study has been published today by Advances in Methods and Practices in Psychological Science.  

Baby talk: Speaking to young children in a high-pitched and exaggerated voice really does help them develop language skills, study claims 

Parents may feel self-conscious, but talking to a baby in a silly voice really could help them learn, a 2020 study found.

A study of 71 families looked at ‘parentese’ – the slow, high-pitched, happy-sounding voice in which many parents talk to their babies.

Parentese has been used as another term for ‘baby talk’, although this team of study authors said the two definitions differ slightly. 

They said baby talk tends to be ungrammatical and include made-up nonsense words.

Parentese, on the other hand, uses only accurate words and grammar, but said in a voice nearly an octave higher.

Just like baby talk, parentese employs exaggerated facial expressions and long vowels which make phonetic sounds of letters easier to understand.

The researchers found that children spoken to this way the most knew more proper words like ‘banana’ and ‘dog’ at 18 months old.

Experts used to think this way of speaking to made them worse at learning language.

But recent evidence shows speaking to a child slowly and cheerfully grabs their attention, which may make them engage more with their parents and try to imitate their speech.


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