Baby talk study: One-on-one builds language skills quickly

A new study soon to be published in the journal Developmental Science finds that baby talk in a one-on-one setting, as well as how vowel sounds in words are exaggerated, are linked with better language development skills. One mom realizes that jokes are a big part of her baby talk repertoire.

Ann Hermes/Staff/FILE
In this photo, mother Ingrid Ahlgren prepares to leave for work as her daughter, Annika Liu, is watched by her great-grandmother, Rita Cheong at their apartment in New York City on May 1, 2012.

A new study that will be published in the next issue of "Developmental Science" reports that parents who engage in one-on-one conversations with their children, and emphasize vowels and different sounds within words, are much more likely to help their children's language development now and in the future.

This research differs from previous studies on the effects of talking to your baby in that it identifies the social context and type of speech patterns that also make an impact on your child's ability to learn language.

"What our analysis shows is that the prevalence of baby talk in one-on-one conversations with children is linked to better language development, both concurrent and future," said Patricia Kuhl, co-author of the study and co-director of University of Washington's Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences.

Not just any baby talk, researchers say, but talking with exaggerated vowels and a raised pitch of the voice. For example, parents cooing "How are youuuuuu?" elicited more babbling – the forerunner to speaking actual words – in researched babies, and it was most effective when one parent spoke to a child individually.

I spend most waking hours around my son William, 1. We have lots of "conversations" throughout the day, mostly involving me talking to him. These studies can be both inspiring and intimidating to new parents, as we try to discern the best path forward in teaching our children. William and I interact one-on-one for most of our waking hours. So, the big question this study poses for me is this: what am I actually saying to him all day long?

According to the study's first author Nairán Ramírez-Esparza, an assistant psychology professor at the University of Connecticut, "Some parents produce baby talk naturally and they don't realize they're benefiting their children. Some families are more quiet, not talking all the time. But it helps to make an effort to talk more."

I will say that there is little to no quiet time in our house on a normal day. I sing while we dance, I read books, we race toy cars across the floor while I make "Vroom, vroom!" sounds, he climbs over things and yells. So what do we actually talk about? And should I adjust what I say?

Reading through the study briefing, I was inspired to audit what I actually discuss with my toddler on a given day. Turns out that I am a total smart aleck most of the time. I realize that there are a number of instances each day when I talk to my toddler more like a little adult rather than cooing in his direction. More specifically, I often talk to him jokingly, like a member of The Three Stooges. "Oh, a wise guy, eh? Why I aughta..."

According to the study, parents should also be exaggerating vowel sounds in words. OK, so how about "Ooooooooh, aaaaaa wiiiiiiiise guuuuuuuuy, eeeeeeehhhh?" More like that? 

The study also explains that it's important to build a back and forth conversation with your child.

According to Ms. Kuhl, "It's not just talk, talk, talk at the child. 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."

When I read that insight, I can't help but think – back and forth like what? Like Laurel and Hardy? Am I the straight man in the duo, or is it the stone-faced kiddo trying to decipher what the heck I am saying? 

Despite my innate smart aleck – mocking my potentially constructive one-way cooing conversations with my little one – I do have a serious interest in raising an exceptionally verbal child. It's just that my sense of humor has carried me through most of the challenges and lessons in parenthood so far, so my eagerness to build my son's language skills through baby talk will undoubtedly be combined with jokes and the occasional wise crack on the side.

We do have meaningful conversations, even if I am the only one speaking English at this point. I encourage him to talk as much as he is willing. He regularly communicates ideas through sounds and hand gestures, and he is speaking with me now in his own way.  And he definitely has a budding sense of humor, making faces and playing the crowd whenever he gets a laugh. I look forward to nurturing his language and comedy skills together.

This study has inspired me to work on how I interact with him and engage him in direct conversations on a daily basis. I do want to make sure that what we are talking about is meaningful and caring.

But a few jokes thrown in can't hurt, right?

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