'Parentese' can help improve language development

Updated: Mar 25, 2020

"When parents talk to their baby with a style of speech known as “parentese”—talking slowly and clearly, and often with exaggerated vowels and intonation—the infant’s language development improves, a new study shows." -

Kim Eckart-Washington

Authors of a 2018 study from the University of Washington Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences found that when parents were coached on how to speak 'parentese', and then used it at home, their infants with a larger vocabulary at 14 months than those in a control group with no 'parentese' coaching.

“We wanted to explore whether parents benefit from ‘coaching’ by adapting their own speaking style and whether this would affect their child’s language outcomes,” says Patricia Kuhl, professor of speech and hearing sciences and co-director of the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences (I-LABS) at the University of Washington.

'Parentese' vs 'Baby-talk'

So what is 'parentese'? It is not the oh-so tempting 'baby-talk', which usually involves some made-up (albeit fun) words. Although it may be tempting to call the teddy bear a "cutesie wootesie teddy weddy", it may not be helpful in terms of language development. Really, it is only fun for us parents. In fact, babies actually prefer 'parentese' which involves descriptive words, slow pronunciation, and yes, even proper grammar (i.e. 'can you see the soft, brown, teddy bear").

'Parentese' is actually like having a normal conversation. There may be more emphasis on certain words, vowels, or consonants or a more high-pitched and engaging/happy tone than you may use when you are out for a coffee with friends, but it is still using your full vocabulary. Babies pick up on the intonations and the flow of social conversations. They start to learn the back and forth (Serve and Return) communication and will often chime in with a "coo" or other cues.

What the authors from the University of Washington Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences found is that most parents know that speaking to their child was important for language development, but they found in their 2018 study, is that how parents speak to their child maybe even more important!

Everyday Tips and Tricks

  • Use daily routines (diaper changes, mealtime, getting dressed, outings, etc.) as opportunities to talk about what you are doing. The repetition of words along with actions or visuals can help the child build the association between the spoken word and the thing/action.

  • Even little moments (going for a walk, grocery shopping, etc.) can be an opportunity to point out things and describe them to your child.

  • Read a book together. Point out objects/actions and describe them to your child.

  • Sing a song with hand actions (or use sign language).

“Parents are a child’s first and most important teachers, and we are happy to show they can have an immediate positive effect on the growth of their child’s language. Early language skills are important predictors of a child’s learning to read and of their success in school, and parents can directly affect their child’s outcomes in this way” says Kuhl.

The study appears in the journal of Developmental Science.

Additional coauthors are from the University of Washington. The Overdeck Family Foundation and the I-LABS Ready Mind Project funded the work.

Original study: DOI: 10.1111/desc.12762

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