Infant speech is characterized by short sentences, a high-pitched voice, and a lot of emphasis on vowels, making sentences more melodic. It seems that this way of speaking – in scientific jargon direct speech of the child mentioned – is quite universal.
Researchers at Harvard University examined dozens of languages from around the world, ranging from the most diverse language families, from Indo-European and Sino-Tibetan languages to Hadza, a Tanzanian language spoken by only a handful of people. They strike everywhere similar models.
What is that baby talk for? Does your child become less intelligent and less able to speak if you speak in a “normal” way? “He’ll probably be fine,” says linguist Anne Baker of the University of Amsterdam.
However, baby talk seems to be functional. Baker points to The ManyBabies project, in which an international research team from 69 laboratories experimented on more than 2,000 babies. The little ones were spoken to in different tones. Children who direct speech of the child in front, it turned out to pay more attention, the researchers found following their gazes.
Pets and the elderly
‘It’s conceivable that young children learn language faster if you speak to them in ‘baby talk,’ Baker says. ‘The high pitch makes the speech stand out more. As children listen more attentively, they pick up more from the context.’
“Thanks to the melody, children can easily distinguish words from each other,” adds psychologist Marijn van Dijk of the University of Groningen.
Language acquisition expert Paula Fikkert of Radboud University in Nijmegen shares this view. She points it out Education measure brain activity, also suggest that infants follow infant-directed speech better. Researchers see no harm in talking to children this way. Or to animals, because we talk higher to our pets as well.
Young children probably benefit from baby talk, but we too talk to them this way because we find it endearing. We think our pets are cute too, so they deserve equal credit. “A high voice, especially in combination with diminutives, sounds good,” says Fikkert. He thinks this may partly explain why so many people even speak to older adults in childish tones. And this is less beautiful.
Anyone who lives in a retirement home, or who visits it often, can’t miss it. “I volunteer at a nursing home,” Baker says. “How often do I hear people there sigh that he doesn’t like being called after a three-year-old.”
Van Dijk cautions that usually no malicious intent is involved. ‘Part of the phenomenon is because we adapt naturally: we adapt our speech to our interlocutors. The elderly often have a slightly louder voice.’ Over time, the vocal cords thin and the cartilage in the larynx becomes less flexible. “You also notice it when someone speaks with an accent. Then you start talking differently too.”
But it may seem condescending. While an older person may be cognitively at their best, they are often perceived as less capable, impactful, and in need of help. “We continually value, consciously or otherwise, the other person’s cognitive abilities,” says Van Dijk. “Prejudices play tricks on us when it comes to the elderly.”
When people have dementia, it helps to speak slowly, in simple sentences. But according to experts, a child’s language is not useful for an adult.
Another thing typical of children’s speech: speaking in the plural. “Shall we take a nice bath today?” Children find ‘I’ and ‘you’ concepts difficult. “They change perspective,” explains Fikkert. “If the other person suddenly becomes a speaker, then ‘I’ turns into ‘you’ and vice versa.”
The meaning of ‘we’, on the other hand, usually remains the same. But of course it is very strange to say to an adult person “Shall we take a bath today?”, when he or she will clearly take a bath by himself. Do not do it.’