The Importance of Parentese (Baby Talk)

24 April, 2021
Baby talk, or "parentese," is the particular way that some adults speak to infants. You might think it's silly or even ridiculous, but it actually contributes to their development.

Parentese, also called baby talk or child-directed talk, is the particular way that many parents and adults talk to infants and small children. It’s an affectionate, singsong way of talking that babies listen to attentively and often respond with smiles and interest.

For a time, experts believe that baby talk was bad for children because it was an impediment to proper speech development. Today, they know that the opposite is true. Parentese actually helps children develop linguistic and communication skills.

Child-directed speech isn’t just about using silly and simple words. It also involves special intonation and mimicry. It’s a way of expressing love and a desire to communicate with the child, which is why it’s so much more affectionate than “regular” speech.

“Language evolved to facilitate the social communication skills that are essential for survival of the species. In this study, we observe firsthand how parents’ language and social engagement can promote baby’s initial responsive coos, which become words, and then sentences – educating infants in the art of human communication.”

-Patricia Kuhl-

A father talking to his baby.

What’s parentese?

As we mentioned above, people use different terms to refer to baby talk. One that we didn’t include above is “motherese,” which has fallen out of favor among psychologists and critics of gender stereotyping because it leaves fathers out of the picture entirely. Baby talk is the most well-known term, parentese is more inclusive for obvious reasons, and child-directed speech is often the preferred term of researchers and child development professionals.  Whatever your preference, they all refer to the same concept: communication from caregiver to baby that follows certain patterns.

Baby talk is a kind of dialect with specific pronunciation and vocalizations. Caregivers tend to speak in a higher voice and carefully separate their words. They use short and repetitive phrases. Baby talk is usually in the present tense.

When an adult uses parentese, they tend to simplify words or turn them into onomatopoeias. Water becomes “wa-wa” and dog becomes “doggy”. Sentences are shorter and full of diminutive and the adult uses gestures and exaggerated facial expressions.

Parentese usually involves some kind of physical contact. The parent or caregiver caresses, hugs, or kisses the baby. They wait for some kind of response from the baby, whether it’s a kick, a coo, eye contact, or an attempt to repeat what they’re hearing.

Why is parentese important?

Most adults spontaneously use parentese with young children. They don’t think about why they’re doing it or what this kind of communication means. Some people even dismiss it as silly. For the baby, however, this kind of communication is very meaningful. First of all, because special intonation and gestures are a particularly effective way to help babies understand communication. The baby gets the message that the speaker has a positive attitude towards them.

The other important thing about parentese is that it invites interactionBaby talk is never a monologue, and babies know that intuitively. They respond in the way that they’re able, given their developmental stage, and establish an emotional connection with the person talking to them.

The exaggerated way of speaking also captures the baby’s attention. This intonation plays an important role, similar to singing. It helps fix sentences and words in the baby’s memory, which is important for speech development.

Short, repeated phrases, along with the singsong, affectionate way of speaking, will help the child understand what the adult is trying to say. This isn’t strictly a matter of teaching and learning but it’s laying the groundwork for these processes to occur later on in life.

A mother talking to her infant.

More than speech, it’s a conversation

Remember that human language isn’t like a machine. It’s not about simply codifying an idea into a word so that someone else can unlock the meaning. For human beings, language means so much more. It can lead to emotional connection and it’s a way to share your thoughts, feelings, and perceptions.

Parentese doesn’t teach a child to talk. It teaches them to have a conversation. The most valuable thing about this kind of baby talk is that it invites interaction. In fact, this kind of communication encourages the baby to respond, which makes it more likely that they’ll understand. This is all extremely helpful for their overall development.

Adults sometimes use parentese with each other or when talking to pets. Research shows that people use parentese or baby talk when interacting with someone or something that triggers the release of oxytocin (the happiness hormone). This isn’t too surprising when you think about it.

i Vilanova, L. S. (2003). En defensa de les llengües maternes. Llengua nacional: publicació de l’Associació Llengua Nacional, (43), 13.