Not just ‘baby talk’: Parentese helps parents, babies make ‘conversation’ and boosts language development

Article Summary:

In a recent study, researchers at the University of Washington measured the effects of coaching parents on how to boost child language development. The team taught adult caregivers strategies to boost conversational turns and parentese. (Parentese is a type of speaking style that uses simple grammar and exaggerated sounds to draw a baby’s attention.) To track how much parents were speaking with their children, and how much children were responding, the team used LENA technology. The families used LENA technology four times — when their children were 6, 10, 14, and 18 months old.

All parents in the study already used parentese at the beginning of the project, but their use varied greatly, the researchers said. Those in the coaching group learned more about the cognitive and social benefits of parentese, when and how to use it to promote interaction with their child, and the positive effects that parentese could have on their child’s language development.

“We had no idea that parents would respond so positively to information about how their own speech to the child affects the child’s language development. Parent coaching gave parents a measurement tool, almost like a Fitbit for parentese, and it worked,” said lead author Naja Ferjan Ramírez, a UW assistant professor of linguistics.

The results show that parent coaching resulted in an increased use of parentese and infant vocalizations that continued to grow after the end of the parent coaching sessions. Between 14- and 18-months, coached families showed a drastic jump in conversational turn-taking and child vocalizations. Children of coached parents produced real words — such as “banana” or “milk” — at almost twice the frequency of children whose parents were in the control group. Parent surveys estimated that the children’s 18-month vocabulary averaged around 100 words among children of coached families, compared to 60 words among children in the control group.

“We know that language skills in infancy predict subsequent stages in language development, so enhancements in language behaviors in infancy could therefore have cascading effects on speech development over time,” said Ferjan Ramírez.