What is child-directed speech? Child-directed speech is a dialect adults use when speaking to very young children. Child-directed speech can help build a young child’s vocabulary, create a social feedback loop, and improve language acquisition. Informally, it’s known as motherese, parentese, or baby talk.
“Who wants a noodle? Yummy, yummy noooooodle!” It’s a typical conversation between a mother and baby. The mom uses child-directed speech or baby talk, as she teases a smile out of her child, who is sitting in a high chair, eating lunch.
Curious how it all works? In this article, you’ll learn the characteristics of child-directed speech, the advantages it offers, possible disadvantages, and practical tips for how you can use child-directed speech in your home.
What Are the Characteristics of Child-Directed Speech?
On any given day, an infant might overhear a parent talking to another caregiver, a parent talking to a sibling, phone conversations, a podcast, and more. But, child-directed speech is different because it is spoken intentionally to the baby.
However, there’s more to child-directed speech. You could speak to a baby all day in a way that’s not considered child-directed speech. But, you probably wouldn’t. Using this type of speech with young children is natural and almost second-nature for most parents. Here are some of the traits of child-directed speech that make it special:
- Simple: Typically, adults use simpler language when talking to small children. For example, instead of “Would you like a glass of water?” you might say “Do you want water?” Everything is affected, including grammar to word choice. For instance, as a general rule, adults avoid the passive voice and words with many syllables when talking to babies.
- Repetitive: Up to 30% of what mothers say when using child-directed speech is repeated (source). It makes sense. If your 10-month old is playing with a ball, you might say several things about the ball, naturally including lots of repetition. For example, “Look at the ball, yeah that’s a ball. A red ball. Throw it! Throw it! Throw the ball!” Then, you start all over again. In just a few sentences, you mention the word “ball” four times.
- “I’m Listening” Responses: Babies babble, coo, and squeal before they talk. But, parents still respond to these efforts. The responses are usually to communicate “I’m listening”. For example, “Oh yeah?” “Mmmhmmm,” “Oh really?” and others. Each person usually has their own unique repertoire of “I’m listening” responses to use with their child.
- Pitch and Cadence: The pitch and cadence of child-directed speech are different than in regular speech. Usually, adults adopt a higher-pitched voice. In addition, they might draw out the vowels in words more. The result is a language that’s melodic and captivating.
Child-directed speech with these characteristics can be found in different cultures around the world. It has naturally cropped up in many different countries and languages, suggesting that it’s a universal human adaptation (source).
Because child-directed speech is so common, there must be some advantages to using this sort of speech with infants. Or, is it just one of those silly things we do?
Researchers have been investigating this phenomenon and their findings are fascinating. Discover some of the advantages below:
Advantages of Child-Directed Speech
Scientists have studied child-directed speech in a growing number of studies. In many of the studies, researchers use special “onesies” equipped with microphones to record what real babies or toddlers hear on a daily basis. Then, they painstakingly listen to the recordings and map out how much child-directed speech the children hear, as well as the content and characteristics of the language. Most studies also evaluate the child’s responses and their cognitive abilities over time.
So far, these are the main advantages scientists have discovered:
- Boosts Language Skills
According to one study, children who heard more child-directed speech developed more language processing abilities. They could identify the correct image after a word was said more quickly and accurately than children who experienced less child-directed speech. Researchers believe that children first became quicker and more reliable at speech interpretation. This then helped them learn new vocabulary words (source).
- Increases Vocabulary
The simplified nature of baby talk might help babies learn individual words more quickly, experts believe. In fact, they learn new words up to 25% faster when they hear baby talk (source).
This is because child-directed speech often makes new words clearer. Imagine you’re learning a new language. If someone spoke to you in that language without consideration for your learning status, it might be hard. But, if they slowed down, repeated themselves, and enunciated clearly, it would be easier for you to pick up new words. The same is true for babies.
- Helps with Bonding
Five-month-old babies prefer individuals who use child-directed speech with them. Essentially, infants bond more with those who use baby talk. Researchers think that babies might seek out these caregivers because they may provide the best care and most opportunities for learning (source).
Infants pay more attention when child-directed speech is used. The higher voice and facial expressions that accompany baby talk capture the attention of babies. It’s like pressing a button that says “this is for you!”
These advantages of child-directed speech should make you quite confident to use it with your own little ones and other babies you encounter. Not only will you make a connection, but you can help the baby advance on their journey to conquering language.
Despite these many advantages, not all of the research comes in crystal clear. Some studies have found different outcomes that suggest child-directed speech isn’t the ultimate solution for helping babies learn language.
Disadvantages of Child-Directed Speech
The disadvantages of child-directed speech are few. While these disadvantages don’t create a strong argument against using child-directed speech, they do offer important considerations.
- It’s Not Universal
Child-directed speech may not be as universal a phenomenon as some researchers think. For example, some researchers found a tribe in Papua New Guinea where child-directed speech is not generally used by adults. Yet, children are able to learn to speak and communicate proficiently (source).
This suggests that children can indeed acquire language in the absence of child-directed speech. In other words, it’s not necessary. So, if using baby talk feels awkward or silly to you, don’t! You can talk normally in good conscience and without fear of stunting your child’s language development.
- It’s Too Simple
Another possible disadvantage is that baby talk could limit the vocabulary you use with your child. Some studies show that using more complex language and a wider vocabulary produced the best results in helping children increase their vocabularies (source).
If you remember, studies also showed that child-directed speech helps babies build their vocabularies. How is it possible that both simplistic and complex language are responsible for language gains in children?
It could be that there’s a sweet spot between the two. Perhaps you use simplistic baby talk with your child, repeating yourself and using a sing-song voice. But, you also use a wide vocabulary, incorporating more and more words whenever you can. Maybe you also read books to your child, exposing them to a wider range of vocabulary words that in turn builds your child’s word bank.
This relates to other research that shows that the more words a child knows, the more academic success they’ll achieve (source). Vocabulary knowledge is closely linked to reading comprehension abilities. And this plays an integral role throughout all subjects at school.
Vocabulary acquisition starts at an early age when children are hearing new words. In fact, studies show that lower-income children may hear up to 30 million fewer words than children from wealthier families. Researchers even noticed this in children as young as 18 months old (source).
So, don’t let your baby talking limit your vocabulary choices. Instead, beef it up and repeat yourself often, even when using more adult words. For example, you might name the shapes of your child’s blocks with decidedly un-baby like words such as “cube,” “prism”, or “sphere.”
As you can see, the disadvantages of child-directed speech fall far from discounting its usefulness. However, they do provide important context. Whereas before you might have shied away from using big words with your baby, you can now do so with confidence, knowing it will help them grow their vocabulary.
Now, when it comes to practical, everyday life, how might you use child-directed speech? You’re probably already using it. But, some intentional thinking about how you could use it may help open up yours, and your baby’s, conversations.
How Can Parents Use Child-Directed Speech?
So far, we know that child-directed speech has some defining characteristics. However, we haven’t discussed purpose. Child-directed speech can be used for many different reasons and understanding them can help parents be more intentional about talking to their young children in the best ways.
Researchers have hashed out four basic purposes for child-directed speech:
- Regulatory: Essentially, this means commands. For example, “Come, sweet pea!” or “Say ‘mama’.”
- Heuristic: This category includes asking questions or clarifying. For example, “Is this George’s book?” or “Is this his?”
- Informative: This type of speech serves to tell the child about the world. For example, “It’s a ball.”
- Interactive: With interactive child-directed speech, parents or caregivers often say the child’s name. They might ask the little one a question, rephrase something they said or comment on something the kid said. For example, “What are you doing, Abby?” or “Yes, a bear. You have a brown bear. Do you like it?”
During interactive speech, a social feedback loop starts to take place. For example, the baby might look at something, which prompts the parent to talk about it. Then, the baby vocalizes, saying “oh!” or “bah!”. The parent responds again. While it doesn’t seem like much of a conversation is taking place, it’s exactly how children begin to understand the patterns of talking with others, researchers assert (source).
As you may have guessed, interactive speech is the most important kind of child-directed speech. Researchers found that a child’s response rate was greatest when higher amounts of interactive speech were used (source).
Despite the fact the interactive speech is the best type of child-directed speech to get responses out of your little one, a mix of speech is necessary. You’d find it unnatural to only use interactive speech. What’s more, the other types of speech also serve important purposes. The fact that interactive speech elicits more response in the child simply serves as a reminder to use this type of speech regularly.
Now that you have a good understanding of the purposes of child-directed speech, it’s time to put it into practice. Research shows that no matter what your socio-economic background, the more you engage with your kid, the better their language outcomes will be (source). All you need is the confidence and know-how to talk with your child.
Practical Ways to Use Child-Directed Speech
Do you feel awkward or silly talking to your infant? It might feel a bit unnatural at first, but if you practice, talking to your baby will soon feel normal. Here are some ways you can get started or talk to your baby even more:
- Describe: Describe what you or your child is doing. For example, if you’re making lunch while your baby watches from a high-chair, you might say. “Now, we’re going to boil the noodles. Look, here are the noodles!” A running commentary throughout the day will make sure you use lots of new words with your little one.
- Ask Questions: In a similar way to describing what’s going on, you can also use questions. For example, “Do you want a bottle?” or “Do you need a diaper change?” These questions cue up what will happen next, creating a perfect language-learning environment.
- Correct: When your child begins talking, you can your child as they begin saying their first words. For example, your child might say “wawa.” You respond by saying “yes, water!”
- Expand: An easy way to get more child-directed speech in with your child is to expand on their vocalizations or words. For example, your baby might say “dah!” and you can respond saying “yes, I’m your Dad. You’re my daughter”. Or, the baby says “bah!” while playing with a book. You can respond saying “Yes! You have a book. A pink book.”
- Sing Songs: Songs entrance young children with rhythm, rhyming, and melody. From nursery rhymes to your favorite tunes, singing to your child will expose them to new vocabulary, sentence structure, and more. Because you’ll probably repeat songs, your child will soon learn to predict their favorite parts. In addition, you can play fun games like “This Little Piggy” or “Peekaboo”.
- Read Books: Books are important for children of all ages. You can start reading books to your baby from birth! In addition to reading the words on the page, you can talk about the pictures, ask questions, and point. Eventually, you can ask your baby to point to different images on the pages.
- Interact and Be Attentive: Try to create a social feedback loop with your child, as described above. Notice what your child looks at or appears interested in and create interaction around it. Also, keep in mind that when babies babble, they’re more open to learning (source). So, take advantage of these moments to interact and share new words with your child.
As you practice these different ways to use child-directed speech, you’ll become more and more comfortable talking to your baby. Before you know it, you’ll begin to enjoy the results when your baby starts understanding language and then talking!
Child-Directed Speech in a Nutshell
Child-directed speech offers parents a powerful tool to help their young children learn to process language and build their vocabularies. This type of speech helps young children excel in language, giving them an important advantage that will help them as they grow. The key to success is that parents have confidence in their ability to talk to their children.
So, next time your 6-month-old starts vocalizing with a long string of “aaahaahaah!”, respond with a warm smile and say “Oh really?”
What may seem nonsensical is where babies begin to understand language. Baby talk teaches your child the building blocks of language, conversation, and vocabulary, effectively unlocking a whole new world.