As our boy develops (far too) quickly, I’m starting to realise that soon his noises are going to turn into words. In the park the other day, I heard a Granny say to a mum, “don’t talk to him like that, he’ll never learn properly!” and it got me a bit heated. In Western society, we often use Child Directed Speech when we talk to our little ones (more commonly known as baby talk) and this was what the Granny (of doom) was trying to stop the mum using.
There are two sides to every argument…Some claim baby talk retains the attention of a child, making language more accessible to them from the outset. Others claim that ‘babytalk’ actually interferes with language development because children learn babyish words and sentences instead of “real” language. That’s a very watered down version of the two camps, but you get the jist.
In times past, it has been strongly believed that baby talk isn’t good for children. This concept isn’t sound though as not every culture uses such forms of Child Directed Speech. In Samoa and Papua New Guinea for example, adults speak to children as they speak to adults, and children acquire language at the same pace as elsewhere in the world, suggesting baby talk isn’t as detrimental as certain people may think. In fact, linguistic research suggests quite the opposite.
Baby talk is great for attracting and hold a baby’s attention – it gets them used to the concept on conversation. Regardless of the quality of the utterances, they are learning how communication works. Learning how to talk is hard and takes a lot of mental and physical function (hence why humans are the only language using species). Baby talk breaks down language into understandable chunks for babies, so they can practice mastering sounds and ordering words. It also allows adults to bond with babies – it isn’t about getting stuff right and wrong.
Don’t take my word for it though, loads of linguists have looked into it:
Found that children whose mothers talk more have larger vocabularies.
Katherine Nelson (1973)
Found that children at the holophrastic stage whose mothers corrected them on word choice and pronunciation actually advanced more slowly than those with mothers who were generally accepting.
Brown, Cazden and Bellugi (1969)
Found that parents often respond to the TRUTH value of what their baby is saying, rather than its grammatical correctness. For example, a parent is more likely to respond to “there doggie” with “Yes, it’s a dog!” than “No, it’s there is a dog.”
Berko and Brown (1960)
Brown spoke to a child who referred to a “fis” meaning “fish”. Brown replied using “fis” and the child corrected him again but saying “fis”. Finally Brown reverted to “fish” to which the child responded “Yes, fis.” This shows that babies do not hear themselves in the same way that they hear others and no amount of correction will change this.
So research h suggests that baby talk doesn’t directly help babies actually learn language, instead it helps parents and carers communicate with children and start them off on their language learning journey. It follows then that baby talk is social rather than educational, so Granny in the park, get your facts straight – The old argument that baby-talk is ‘harmful’ to a child learning language is outdated (mic drop).