Babies are a popular source of conversation in my life these days. My daughter is getting ready to have one in a few months, my nieces and nephew had one recently, several of my colleagues are new parents and grandparents, and my mother is a great grandmother five times over.
So what? you ask. Well, as a lover of words and writing, this got me thinking about baby talk, you know the syncopated coos and exaggerated, high-pitched mode we adopt when we see them.
There has been much discussion on whether our baby talk (or “motherese”) helps them in their language development. The instinctive response is to argue that it does not help them. Many parents believe it doesn’t help because we are not mimicking standard phonetics. The truth is that babies like to hear our exaggerated efforts to address them.
According to an articlein Parents magazine, by Tenille Bonoguore, Katherine White, a professor of developmental psychology, studies those early stages of language at the Lab for Infant Development and Language at the University of Waterloo, in Ontario. She says that motherese is found in almost all languages—even sign language—but the impetus seems to be less about teaching speech than simply holding a baby’s attention. So, baby talk can help babies develop speech.
Also, there is good baby talk and useless baby talk. The good talk is speaking to your baby with exaggerated vowels, such as “sweet bay-beee,” as opposed to made-up words like “pookie-lukie baby.”
In a study titled Language experienced in utero affects vowel perception after birth: a two-country study, by Christine Moon, Hugo Lagercrantz, and Patricia K Kuhl, and published by the research arm of The Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences (I-LABS) at the University of Washington, the researchers found that babies learn language from their mothers while they are in the womb. Babies only hours old are able to differentiate between sounds from their native language and a foreign language, scientists have discovered. The study indicates that babies begin absorbing language while still in the womb, earlier than previously thought.
Also, I-LABS is now home to a one-ton machine that can safely read the mind of a seven-pound baby, yielding important clues into how, where, and when human learning happens. The exquisitely sensitive MEG brain-imaging device can map the mental activity of an infant only a few days old and proves that newborn brains are anything but empty.
This new-found knowledge has supported my urge to talk to these new darlings in baby talk, just as I did with their parents when thy were babies. Of course, I will get permission from their parents first.