Over the weekend, NPR shared an article titled, “The science is in: Everyone recognizes and uses baby talk with infants.”
Collecting more than 1,500 recordings from urban, rural and Indigenous communities, scientists at Harvard’s Music Lab found a common theme in the way adults speak to infants. Baby talk — that high-pitched, often indecipherable way of speaking to infants — is universally practiced across cultures.
Sherri Fickenscher, MS, LSLS Cert. AVEd, education support specialist at Clarke, has noted this extensively in her work with families.
“Studies show that regardless of age, ethnicity or socio-economic status, most adults use this type of speech with infants or toddlers,” says Sherri.
The Harvard Music Lab’s research echoed this, finding baby talk was used in an isolated Indigenous group from Tanzania, the Hadza people. “They have next to no exposure to global media via the Internet, radio and TV,” writes NPR. “And the Hadza language is also called a language isolate, meaning that it is not related to any other known living language.”
Despite that, adults in this group used the same signature high-pitched, rhythmic way of speaking to babies.
Parentese, or "Baby Talk," as Acoustic Highlighting
“Even children as young as two to three years of age use [baby talk] when talking to babies or their baby dolls,” says Sherri. “This type of speech, also called ‘parentese’ or ‘motherese,’ typically includes a higher pitch voice which emphasizes vowels (the first sounds babies produce) sing-song tone of voice, and lots of natural inflection. Research has shown that this practice helps children ‘crack the code’ of language.”
Parentese is also a form of acoustic highlighting, a Listening and Spoken Language (LSL) strategy Clarke professionals use when coaching families to develop language-rich environments at home.
Acoustic highlighting is an umbrella term that encompasses many other LSL strategies. Parentese, positioning, being mindful of background noise, our rate of speech, repetition and expansion are all types of acoustic highlighting. Often when referring to acoustic highlighting, however, most professionals define this as an added emphasis on a particular word or sound so that it becomes more audible, or pops, for the listener.
To use acoustic highlighting, the caregiver may pause slightly before the targeted word or sound and then increase or decrease their intensity slightly while being mindful of their rate of speech. Intensity refers to the power of a sound. “Keep in mind that louder is not always better. I prefer the word ‘intensity’ over ‘loudness’ so that we keep ourselves in check by not speaking too loudly. When we speak louder, often the softer sounds of speech, like the ‘s,’ ‘f’ and ‘th’ sounds are even harder to hear. That’s why keeping our vocal volume, or intensity, at a normal level is so important,” says Sherri.
Acoustic highlighting — including the unintentional work of baby talk! — draws the child’s attention to a sound, word or even grammatical structure that the speaker would like to emphasize for the child. The emphasis might be used to correct a grammatical formation, add detail or practice incorporating some new vocabulary, for example.
Singing is a wonderful way to practice acoustic highlighting as we naturally highlight our voices when we sing by changing pitches and durational patterns. So keep up the sweet, soft tones of baby talk, as well as the lullabies. These are naturally effective ways to introduce babies to speech patterns.
As Sherri emphasizes to the families she supports, “Whether your child has a diagnosed hearing difference or not, you already know how to communicate with them! Take a deep breath and relax… you got this.”
To learn more strategies for developing LSL strategies at home, check out Clarke’s article “How to Create a Rich Learning Environment at Home—for Children at All Stages.”