To baby talk or not to baby talk

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Posted: 
March 11, 2019
Written by: Amy Warr

The first three years of life is a very intriguing period in terms of language development. The rate at which little ones pick up language, and multiple ones at that, is astounding. Because these first years are becoming more and more known as the “pivotal years of language learning,” there is some debate over how you should and should not speak to young children. Does “baby talk” benefit or hinder language learning?

Experts’ recommendations

There doesn’t seem to be a clear-cut answer to this debate; however, professionals in related fields tend to agree on the following suggestions.

1. Avoid “dumbing it down”

The use of “baby terminology” does not seem to be much help to language development. By teaching little ones to call certain things by their baby terms, we’re just adding a step to their language acquisition. For example, oftentimes adults can be heard speaking to children, saying things like “member that?” instead of “remember that?” They’re simplifying the word “remember” so that it’s easier for the infant to pronounce it; however, later in life, that child will have to learn that the correct term is “remember.” There’s really no need to change the pronunciation of a difficult word. Children will come up with their own way of pronouncing it until they’re able to properly pronounce the word themselves.

It’s very much the same when it comes to phrasing. It can be helpful to speak in simpler sentences; however, you should try to avoid simplifying a phrase so much that it becomes grammatically incorrect. For example, saying “Sophie, do you want a cookie?” is much more beneficial to a child than saying “Sophie want cookie?” Although it will be a while before they can say sentences themselves, infants and toddlers are picking up on language patterns rapidly, and you can help them learn best by modelling proper sentence structure and wording.

2. Avoid copying their baby talk

As mentioned above, when young children are first learning to speak, they’ll have their own ways of pronouncing words until they’re capable of proper pronunciation. It’s important to not copy their mispronunciation because they’re saying the word to the best of their ability and it will lead to confusion if you change the way you pronounced it the first time. As cute as it may be to copy your child when she says “dis” instead of “this,” it’s beneficial to her if you keep pronouncing the word properly. Please note that this is only in reference to older infants who are starting to pronounce words. Copying the early sounds a young infant makes, such as “ba ba ba,” is a great language development activity.

3. Be engaging

When speaking with infants, adults have a natural tendency to speak in higher tones and exaggerate their facial expressions. This way of “baby talking” can be beneficial to infants, as it helps them to focus and engage in “conversation.” By slowing and exaggerating your voice, you make it easier for babies to recognize the breaks between words. Speech pathologists advise this be done only until infants begin to speak themselves, and then it’s best to model normal speech. Eye contact is very important when speaking with infants, toddlers, and anyone for that matter!

No surprise here

When it comes down to it, during the first few years of life, we are our children’s role models. It should be no surprise that the same applies for language development. By encouraging proper pronunciation and speech, and by modelling an engaging method of conversing, we can do our best to help them on their language-learning journey.

The burning question: Do you stop someone from saying silly baby words or phrases to your child? The best advice out there seems to be to model your preferred way of speaking to your child and hope that others recognize your decisions and follow suit. A few silly words here and there aren’t going to have a major impact on your child’s learning, but these tips can guide you in the right direction as your child’s first educator.

What do you think about baby talk? Tell me about your own opinions or experiences in a comment!

Disclaimer

The opinions expressed in posts and comments published on the Our Languages blog are solely those of the authors and commenters and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Language Portal of Canada.

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About the author

Amy Warr

Amy Warr is the founder of 123 Petits Pas, which holds beginner French classes for parents and their infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. She is a certified French as a second language instructor in Ontario and has created a career out of her two biggest passions in life: parenthood and French language education. Her goal is to help Canadian parents introduce French as a second language no matter how little French they may know themselves. Amy also enjoys writing articles on related subjects and finds the early stages of language development incredibly intriguing.

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I heartily agree with this advice. To add, if there are different languages spoken by the parents and caregivers, speak them, and correctly, too!

I'm glad you enjoyed the article and agree that multiple languages should be introduced ASAP if the opportunity is there!

I’m happy I stumbled on this article! My 13-month old is learning to talk in a house filled with 3 languages. I need all the advice I can get!

Bonsoir Hélène, I'm happy to hear that you found this article helpful! That's an incredibly lucky baby to have such early exposure to 3 languages. Good for you for taking an interest in your child's language learning. I've written a few articles on the subject of raising multilingual children as well. My biggest piece of advice is to have a "language plan" and discuss it as a family. It's a lot easier to stick to something if everyone is on the same page. Bonne chance! :)

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