Have you ever noticed how babies and toddlers seem to love books but when you try to read to them they have such a short attention span that you can never finish even the shortest of stories? They seem to love the bright, colourful pictures and the sound of your voice (and their own), especially when you are reading in rhyme, but they don’t seem to be very interested in the story. They soon decide to either eat the book or wriggle off your lap to explore something else in their immediate vicinity. So is children’s literature relevant for babies and can they actually learn anything useful during story-time?
Firstly, what is baby-talk? Baby-talk is sometimes referred to as motherese (a term coined by Elissa Newport in her studies in the 1970s), which so as not to exclude fathers began to be referred to as fatherese, parentese or caregiver language. However it is generally known by child development experts and linguists as child-directed speech or CDS (as opposed to standard adult-directed speech). It is a very informal speech register that adults use specifically with very young children and has many distinguishing features; It consists of a mixture of meaningless sounds like “goo-goo, ga-ga”, family specific words like “num-num” or “ba-ba” (and variations of) for things like the baby’s dummy or bottle and some words that can be traditionally recognized such as “beddy-bye” for bed-time or other familiar parts of a baby’s routine. It also consists of diminutive forms such as “doggy, horsy, ducky” etc. Many of the words used in baby talk have onomatopoeic properties as well as alliteration and other repetitive patterns of sound like “wee-wee, dum-dum or teeny-weeny.” David Crystal calls these types of words in children’s literature “sound symbolic words” and Elinor Payne et al. also looked at the “Rhythmic modification in child directed speech” how rhythmic properties of adult speech varies when addressing children rather than adults.
Linguists recognize that the phonology of CDS demonstrates a slower rate of speech, with clearer pronunciation, higher pitch, longer and more pauses between phrases and sentences and exaggerated intonation and stress. Lexis shows a simpler vocabulary with a much more restricted or limited range of words, usually nouns, objects within the child’s own environment, such as the examples given above: doggy, num-num etc. David Crystal calls the stage where children start to repeat these words as the ‘holophrastic stage.’ CDS has a form of grammar that uses much simpler constructions, shorter and less complex utterances, frequent use of imperatives, repetition, questions and the use of personal names rather than pronouns, for example “Mummy” not “I” or “Daddy” or “Doggy” instead of “him/he” etc.
Take a look at this rather cute video of a mother using child directed speech with her twin baby boys. You can see how often she asks questions and uses imperatives (especially when one of the boys keeps smacking his brother!) She uses lots of repetition and higher pitch, pauses, exaggerated intonation and stress etc. And look how well the boys are responding using a clear turn-taking style of conversation with their mummy, which is another very important skill in any language.
As you can see from this ages and stages guide: http://www.talkingpoint.org.uk/sites/talkingpoint.org.uk/files/stages-speech-language-development-chart001.pdf
babies’ speech and language development is so important and from birth babies are listening, responding to and learning from adults all the time. And they learn at a phenomenal rate. Reading with babies is another way to really stimulate babies’ speech and language development using child-directed speech. Here is another very cute example:
The video shows how keeping the baby’s attention during story time is more about how you speak to him than the story itself. His mother uses lots of questions to ask him about what is going on in the pictures and the book has flaps and surprises so that those questions can be explored together, leading to more things to talk about. It is the interaction between mother and baby that is important. She uses lots of exaggerated facial expressions as well as intonation and stress to really highlight the language she wants him to pay attention to. And he obviously loves it. Well who doesn’t love Spot?
So you can see that baby-talk or child-directed speech isn’t just a silly way to talk to babies. It provides a good base for language acquisition; word recall through repetition helps babies to form mental representations and leads to similar patterns in babbling. It gives positive attention which helps babies bond with adults, helping them feel secure and aiding emotional development. It provides the beginnings of turn taking, an important conversation skill, which along with smiling and other facial expressions is good for face recognition and social development too and when used during story time makes a fun introduction to early literacy.
“Baby-talk” Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baby_talk
“Motherese” Glottopedia – http://www.glottopedia.org/index.php/Motherese
Alan Gardiner – English Language As and A2 Revision Express, 2008 – pg 140-141 “How Adults Speak to Children”
David Crystal – http://www.davidcrystal.com/home
David Crystal’s Theory on Child Language Acquisition – https://aggslanguage.wordpress.com/chomsky/
David Crystal Pg253 The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language – second edition
Elinor Payne et al. – http://oro.open.ac.uk/21153/2/17_Payne_et_al-OWP.pdf.