Juhl: Why do we baby talk at children, and should we?

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There’s something that happens when many people come face to face with a baby. Their eyes widen. Their eyebrows lift. Their voice ratchets up and they seem to forget how to speak. Suddenly it’s all cooing and “Oh, who’s a good baby? Who’s a coochie-coochie coo?” They go completely gaga in front of Baby.

“There are a couple of different mechanisms at play, biological and cultural,” says Shuvo Ghosh, director of the Brain, Development and Behaviour Department at the Montreal Children’s Hospital.

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He says the baseline to consider is that baby talk is semi-universal and in one form or another has being going on for thousands of years.

Children develop language through osmosis — they mimic what they hear. Adults adapt their behaviour to mirror the baby.

“We’re doing an adult version of what the baby is capable of doing, it’s a natural way of mimicking and communicating,” Ghosh says.

This is mirror neuron behaviour, which sometimes causes our left and right sides to do similar actions. For instance, when someone is playing a musical instrument or drawing very intently with their right hand, their tongue might move to the left side of their face.

“It’s like their tongue is helping them to draw, but it’s not,” Ghosh says.

It can also lead to embarrassing situations, when people might take on someone’s accent when they’re trying to communicate with them, or speak loudly to a deaf person who is reading their lips.

“It doesn’t make any sense, but it’s part of what we tend to do, mirroring and mimicking.”

Here’s the thing: Research has demonstrated that speaking in full sentences is a significant factor and predictor of how quickly a child picks up language skills. There’s a counterintuitive process going on when we baby talk.

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“It may not be the most optimal way to try to accelerate a kid learning vocabulary,” says Ghosh, who speaks several languages. “Normal conversation seems to be shown as the most effective way for kids to learn expressive language at a somewhat faster rate. And that also goes for bilingualism and multilingualism.”

That’s the “osmosis” part, he says. Hearing grammatically correct sentences is how they learn grammar rules. There isn’t one absolute answer to explain why many people use a less efficient route toward teaching language, and it doesn’t happen consistently in every society.

There is evidence that in certain more restrictive societies, “you might only see it in private,” Ghosh says. “It might be frowned upon to seem immature when you’re older, to be goofy and silly. You might see it only in the primary caregiver (which most of the time still tends to be the mother), and you don’t see the fathers or siblings or even Grandma doing as much baby talk.”

The primary caregiver baby talks because they’re spending the most time with the child and are accommodating them and getting a reaction.

“It’s not like these Hollywood movies where the baby is speaking in an adult voice, right? They use eye movements, smiles, vocalizations like cooing or crying.”

Higher-pitched frequencies are perceived in the ear canal earlier in development. Infants will get the vibrations from very low tones or a deep baritone voice, but won’t necessarily make out every syllable as clearly.

“Even if you’re speaking a full sentence, if you just slightly elevate your pitch around them, that is more audible,” Ghosh says.

Baby talking comes naturally even when we know scientifically it’s not the best way to promote language development.

“You don’t want to be seven years old and cooing and giggling in a high-pitched voice,” Ghosh says, “but we still do it just because it’s instinctive to us.”

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