Picture yourself talking to a baby. What does it sound like? Your speech is probably slower, high pitched, and exaggerated. In all likelihood, you probably feel like an idiot when you’re doing it.
This way of talking is commonly known as baby talk, or motherese, and it is known by researchers as infant-directed speech. There has been some controversy between parents and researchers about whether we should use baby talk with our infants and whether it helps or hurts their language development. But to many parents, motherese feels quite natural, and, in fact, it appears in most languages and cultures around the world. Parents who use sign language even sign in a way that resembles motherese, using slower, more exaggerated symbols than those typically used when signing with adults. Grown-ups without children often use motherese to talk to their pets, and young children can be observed using it to talk to younger babies, animals, or even toys.
The big question is: is motherese helpful to babies, or is it just plain old stupid? Learning language is hard, and one of the very first challenges that babies have to face is learning which combinations of sounds make words. Imagine listening to a foreign language; for most of us, it sounds like an ongoing stream of sounds, and it’s hard to pick out which combinations of sounds make words and which combinations of words make sentences. It turns out that at this early stage in language learning, motherese might actually help.
Like I said, motherese is slower-paced than adult-directed speech, and it is typically high pitched and exaggerated with lots and lots of pauses. This makes words spoken in motherese easier to pick out, and it might help babies figure out which combinations of sounds make up words. In fact, the amount of motherese used in households has been shown to predict the frequency of babies’ babbling and their future language performance, suggesting that motherese might indeed help babies learn some early aspects of language.
Perhaps an even more important function of motherese is that it holds a baby’s attention. Research has shown that babies like listening to motherese and prefer to listen to speech samples presented in motherese than those presented in adult-directed speech.
Despite these findings, there are still experts who think that parents should speak to their children normally, without using baby talk, and there are some researchers who have shown that parents speak more clearly to their children when they throw motherese out the window. But will babies fail to learn language if you use motherese? Conversely, are you hurting your child’s development if you can’t bring yourself to utter phrases like: “Time to go bye bye!” or “Pee pee in the potty!”
The answer to both of these questions is a resounding no. Babies are incredibly good at learning language—way better than we are—and they will learn it whether you use baby talk or not. Before you know it, they’ll be gabbing a mile a minute about what they did in preschool that day or what their BFF had for lunch. So for now, just talk to them in the way that feels most natural to you, even if what’s natural makes you feel stupid.