Parentese helps Mom and Dad avoid ‘baby talk’ trap

Q: My husband and I could not be happier. After a series of failures and disappointments, we have finally had a successful pregnancy.

He is the greatest little boy in the whole world and, of course, both of us love him dearly. We want to do what is best for him but that is presenting a bit of a problem for us.

I recently read an article that was somewhat critical of the way in which people usually talk to their babies. The article called it “baby talk.” This is the “ga, ga, goo, goo, itsy, gitsy coo, coo” that gushes out whenever we take our baby somewhere.

Apparently, you are not supposed to do this, even if everyone does.

My husband and I thought that this was the thing we were supposed to do if we wanted to relate to our baby.

I guess that he and I were wrong and of late we have been trying to talk more like an adult to our little boy but to be honest I feel awkward talking to my son the same way I might talk to my mom. I don’t want to revert back into baby talk if indeed it is going to be somewhat difficult for my son. But I am not sure what to do. Do you have any information about this?

A: You sound like you are caught between a rock and a hard place. You don’t want to fall into the baby talk trap but at the same time, I suspect that talking to your child much the same as you did to your first year English professor is not at all useful to him.

Fortunately, there is a third way. It is called parentese. Parents who talk parentese to their children talk linguistically correct, they obey all of the grammar rules and in many ways treat their babies in much the same way that they treat each other.

They don’t cloud their conversations to their babies with the usual baby-talk sounds, and they speak as clearly as they can. But there are some significant differences.

The first is eye contact. Parents talking parentese to their babies try to make sure that they have the child’s attention by keeping eye contact with him. Then these same parents stretch out their vowels. For example, instead of saying “here”, they would be more inclined to say “heeee—eeeer”, stretching the vowel “e” out as long as is reasonable without messing around with the cadence of the word. They talk slowly, speak to their babies with varying pitches, sometimes talking in high tones, other times lower ones. And they try to keep the conversation as positive as they can.

You can learn a fair amount about parentese by googling it on your computer. The University of Washington has some significant research in which they found that the babies with parentese parents have larger vocabularies than do babies who are either struck with baby talk or are overwhelmed with academically proficient parents.

They understand more of what is said to them and they are more inclined to talk themselves than are other children. But let’s be a little cautious here.

Despite whatever the University of Washington said, things are not as bad as you might suspect if you have not or do not talk parentese to your baby. Kids have these little neurological mechanisms in their brains that help them compensate for whatever they might have missed while they were growing up and turning into bigger and older children. If people do not talk parentese to your son, and if he missed a few words along the way, chances are pretty good that he will catch up when he matures.

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