Does the baby speak badly? Research shows its height changes and rhythms help infant language development


When we read, it is very easy for us to distinguish individual words: in written language spaces are used to separate words from each other. But this is not the case with spoken language – speech is a flow of sound, from which the listener has to separate the words to understand what the speaker is saying.

This task is not difficult for adults who know the words of their language. But what about babies, who have hardly any language experience? How do they even begin to separate, or “segment”, individual words from the flow of language they hear all the time around them?

As a researcher interested in early language production, I am fascinated by how babies begin to acquire knowledge of their language and how parents and other caregivers can support them in this task.

Babies first begin to learn the language by listening not to individual words, but to the rhythm and intonation of the flow of speech, that is, the changes between highs and lows, as well as the rhythm and volume of syllables of speech. Parents often exaggerate these language characteristics when speaking with their infants, which is important for early language learning.

Nonetheless, some may find that using this exaggerated style of speech is patronizing or unrealistic of adult speech and, as such, does not get babies off to a good start.

Is baby talk really good for babies?

How babies learn

Even before a baby is born, the language learning process has already started. In the third trimester of pregnancy, when the infant’s ears are sufficiently developed, the mother’s speech intonation patterns are transmitted by fluids in the uterus.

It is thought to be like listening to someone talking in a swimming pool: it is difficult to distinguish individual sounds, but the rhythm and intonation are clear. This has a big effect on language learning. By the time a baby is born, it already has a preference for his mother’s language. At this stage, the infant is able to identify the language through its intonation patterns.

For example, French speakers and Russian speakers emphasize different parts of a word or phrase, so the rhythm of these two languages ​​sounds different. Even at four days old, babies can use this information to distinguish their own language from another unknown language.

This means that the newborn is ready to start learning the language around him; she is already interested in her mother’s language, and as her attention is drawn to that language, she begins to learn more about the characteristics and patterns it contains.

Use a singing voice

Intonation is also very important for the language development of infants during the first months of life. Adults tend to talk to babies using a special type of register that we call “baby talk” or “materese”. This usually involves a higher pitch than normal speech, with large and exaggerated changes in intonation.

Research has shown that babies prefer to listen to that type of exaggerated baby talk than typical adult speech: They pay more attention when a parent’s speech has a higher pitch and a wider pitch range compared to an adult’s speech with less exaggerated pitch characteristics.

For example, a mother may pronounce the word “baby” in an exaggerated “singer” voice, which holds a baby’s attention longer than she would with a monotonous, adult-style voice. Words produced in this manner also stand out more from the flow of speech, making it easier for babies to choose smaller pieces of language.

Through the vast flow of language babies hear around them every day, these distinctive height characteristics in baby speech help babies “tune in” to a small part of the lobby, making treatment more manageable language.

How infants process speech

Baby words tend to be spoken at a slower pace, and key words often appear at the end of a sentence. For example, the phrase “Can you see the doggie?” Is preferable to “The doggie eats a bone”: babies will more easily learn the word “doggie” when it appears at the end of the sentence.

For the same reasons, words produced in isolation – separated from the rest of the sentence by pauses – are also easier to learn for infants. Studies have shown that the first words infants produce are often those heard most often in isolation during early development. Babies hear isolated words such as “bye bye” and “mummy” very frequently, and these are often the first words they are taught to produce.

When a word is produced separately from ordinary speech, the infant does not have to segment it from a stream of sounds, and it is therefore easier to determine where the word begins and where it ends.

Furthermore, infants were found recognize words more easily when they are produced more slowly than in typical adult speech. This is because when speech is slower, it is easier for infants to spot individual words and sounds, which can be produced more clearly than in faster speech. Additionally, infants process language much slower than adults, so slower speech is believed to give infants more time to process what they hear.

How replication helps

Word repetition is also beneficial in early word learning in infants. Infants’ first words tend to be the ones produced most of the time in the caregiver’s speech, such as “mom”, “bottle” and “baby”.

The more a baby hears a word, the easier it is to segment it from the flow of speech. The child develops a stronger mental representation of frequent words. Eventually, she will be more likely to produce frequently heard words with fewer errors.

In addition, duplicate words, that is, words that contain repetitions, such as “woof ouaf” or “quack quack” – are typical of baby’s language and are known to have a learning advantage. early words.

Same newborns show stronger brain activation when hearing words containing reduplication. This suggests that there may be a strong advantage for these words in human language processing. This is supported by evidence from slightly older infants, who have learned to learn duplicate words. easier than unreplicated words.

How baby talk helps infants

So talking about a baby is not just a way to engage with the infant on a social level – it has important implications for language learning from the first moments of a newborn’s life. Baby talk features present infants with information about their surrounding language and allow them to break up the flow of speech into smaller chunks.

Although baby’s speech is not essential in guiding language learning in infants, the use of pitch modulations, repetition, and slower speech make it easier for infants to process their language patterns.

Speaking in such an exaggerated style may not seem conducive to long-term language learning, but there is plenty of research showing that this style of speaking actually provides a optimal entry for language learning from the first days of an infant’s life.


Catherine E. Laing, Postdoctoral Fellow, duke university

This article is republished from The conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read it original article.


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