Baby Talk vs. “Parentese” with Dr. Patricia Kuhl

Image credit: The University of Washington

‘Gooooo-ddd morn-iiiiing!’ is probably how parents greet their little ones as they rise and shine. Just baby talk? There could be much more to it. Parents (or caregivers) naturally talk to their babies in exaggerated tones and enunciating vowels slower. A bright day becomes ‘briiiiiight’, a banana is said as ‘ba-na-na!”, and the baby isn’t just happy, but ‘haaaa-ppy!’ This is one of the very first tools to help babies learn how to verbalize. 

Parents and caregivers are constantly looking for the best techniques to help their children learn and grow—and it turns out the best way to help babies learn language isn’t a trend, it’s a scientifically proven method called parentese. Parentese—a pioneering language for helping babies learn language, has its roots in natural ‘baby talk’ and at the same time, is so much more than that! It is taking baby talk to the next level by consciously paying attention to intonation and gestures. Also, unlike baby talk—parentese is always grammatically correct.

Dr. Patricia Kuhl and her research team at I-LABS out of the University of Washington pioneered this research. Patricia K. Kuhl, Ph.D., is a Professor of Speech and Hearing Sciences and Co-Director of the University of Washington Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences (I-LABS). Dr. Kuhl is also the Bezos Family Foundation Endowed Chair in Early Childhood Learning.

Parentese is using real words and sentences in a sing-song tone of voice with longer vowels and exaggerated tone, with your baby from birth to two years of age can significantly impact their development skills and how they perform in school. Parents want their children to have every advantage when it comes to learning, and this is a scientifically proven method for parents to help their children succeed.

We spoke with Dr. Kuhl about good language practices and how parents and caregivers can use parentese to significantly grow a child’s language abilities…

Seattleite: What is parentese exactly? Could you give us an example?

Dr. Kuhl: Infant-directed speech, commonly called parentese, is a higher-pitched and exaggerated way of speaking that people use when talking to babies. Compared to standard, adult-directed speech, parentese uses a sing-song tone of voice with an ample amount of social cues. This helps babies know you are talking to them. When using parentese, your voice is higher in pitch, and your speech is slower. You also use exaggerated intonation and vowels. Our research indicates that babies tend to pay attention and prefer it over “normal” or adult-directed speech, and it helps them learn language over time. 

For an example of parentese, watch this video!

Seattleite: How can parents learn parentese?

Dr. Kuhl: Our recent study shows that parentese is an effective engagement strategy that is easy for parents to learn and incorporate into their day-to-day family life. Parentese is easy for parents to try by speaking in a higher-pitch, sing-song tone of voice with exaggerated vowels, pausing to see how their baby responds. In our study, we tracked parents’ use of parentese along with their children’s language development starting at 6 months of age. Children whose parents used more parentese when they were between 6- and 14-months had the largest increase in babbling during the same time period. Our results indicate that parentese is an easy way to boost children’s language learning through back-and-forth interactions with your child.

Seattleite: How is parentese different from ‘baby talk’?

Dr. Kuhl: “Baby talk” uses silly sounds and made-up words like “shoesy-woosies” instead of “shoes.” In contrast, parentese uses real words and correct grammar. The exaggerated tones and vowels of parentese help babies learn language while you speak with them. Additionally, the social nature of parentese makes it a highly effective strategy to engage your baby in back-and-forth interactions, which boosts learning across many developmental areas.

Seattleite: How does parentese help in developing an infant’s language skills?

Dr. Kuhl: Our research shows that the higher-pitch, sing-song tone of voice lets babies know you are talking to them. In a very noisy world, parentese is a signal to babies that they should pay attention! The slow, exaggerated way of speaking also helps young children understand and learn from speech. Adults tend to talk to each other very quickly, but the naturally slower pace of parentese helps children understand where one word ends and where the next word begins. Finally, using parentese helps foster social, engaged interactions between parents and their children. This sets children up for a lifetime of learning.

Seattleite: What are your top tips to parents for communicating with their infants?

Dr. Kuhl: Speak to your child using parentese, with lots of social cues like bright, open eyes and a warm tone of voice, along with pointing and gestures. It’s important to give your child plenty of time to respond when speaking with them using parentese. Then, acknowledge any response and continue the conversation! Taking turns with your baby is a wonderful way to build their language skills, their brain development, and your relationship. 

Seattleite: What are some ways in which parents can boost their infant’s verbal development?

Dr. Kuhl: Encourage your baby’s vocalizations and respond to them using parentese. Even if your baby is just babbling or making sounds, this is a wonderful sign that their language skills are growing! Our research has found that infants who hear more parentese at 11 and 14 months tend to babble more, and these babies have larger vocabularies at 24 months of age. 

Talk about what your baby can see, what they are doing or what they are interested in. It is not the number of words you use that matters – it’s the quality of your interactions with your child. You can think of parentese as an engagement strategy for talking with your baby. Babies love to listen to you when you speak to them using parentese! This creates a strong bond, with lots of back-and-forth interactions that support learning.