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“Baby talk” sets the stage for speech production in infants

Have you ever wondered why adults talk differently to babies than they do to other adults, or even toddlers? They use a higher pitch than normal, speak more slowly, emphasize or exaggerate certain words and use a different vocabulary. This “baby talk” is not only cute and engaging, but may also be helping infants learn how to produce speech. 

New research from the University of Florida suggests that baby talk, apart from being very effective at getting a baby’s attention, can also have another, previously unknown benefit: it helps babies learn to produce their own sounds and words. The researchers think that using baby talk guides infants in how their own words should sound.

“It seems to stimulate motor production of speech, not just the perception of speech. It’s not just goo-goo ga-ga,” said Dr. Matthew Masapollo, director of the UF Laboratory for the Study of Cognition, Action, and Perception of Speech.

In the study, the researchers changed the frequency of conversational sounds to mimic either an infant or adult vocal tract. When they tested how infants reacted to each sound tract, they found that six- to eight-month-old babies “displayed a robust and distinct preference for speech with resonances specifying a vocal tract that is similar in size and length to their own.” 

By contrast, younger babies of four to six months in age didn’t have that preference. It seems that older babies have already developed some control over their voices and their ability to make “babble words” and this makes the sounds of an adult’s baby talk more interesting and appealing to them.  

It is tempting to think of baby talk as a simple form of communication, but that is not necessarily true. For example, words like “choo-choo-train” and “kitty-cat” are actually more complex than their adult language counterparts. Using baby talk clearly has other important functions as well. 

Though baby talk may sound simple, it’s accomplishing a lot, said study co-author Dr. Linda Polka McGill University. 

“We’re trying to engage with the infant to show them something about speech production,” she said. “We’re priming them to process their own voice.”

While parents are sometimes discouraged from engaging in baby talk, the new research shows the patterns associated with that speaking style – which scientists call “infant-directed speech” – could be a key component in helping babies make their own words.

The results of the research were published today in the journal Speech, Language and Hearing.

By Alison Bosman, Staff Writer

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