Baby talk is a phenomenon that crosses racial, cultural, and gender lines. It’s virtually impossible for most of us to look at a baby and not descend into the silly blubber of baby talk. Formerly intelligent English majors will find themselves saying things like “Who’s a widdle pookie-wookie?” Big manly men speak in tiny, non-threatening voices. Baby talk is universal, and considering the nonsensicalness of how adults talk to children, it’s somewhat amazing that anyone ever learns proper English at all. So why do we do it?
Speaking Like a Mom
Sometimes baby talk is called “motherese” or “mommy talk,” but linguists and child development experts properly refer to it as child-directed speech, and it’s a particular form of language that humans use when talking to infants and children. Adults descend into baby talk regardless of whether they are parents themselves, whether it’s babbling incoherently or just a slight change in pitch. Whenever we’re confronted with an infant or small child our voices pitch up, we speak with a comforting “cooing” sound, and we shorten and simplify words. “Father” becomes “da-da,” “blanket” becomes “binky,” and “bottle” becomes “ba-ba.”
Many languages contain their own version of baby talk. Across the world, baby talk vocabularies are mostly comprised of words that deal with sleeping, eating, elimination, animals, relatives, and behavior. Besides speech, adults also use exaggerated facial expressions and physical gestures when communicating with young children. Even animals like chimps use a special set of vocalizations specifically directed at their young.
Learning Language, One Sound at a Time
Infants’ brains develop rapidly in the first few years of life, and they learn to speak by mimicking adults. Babies babble and make nonsense noises until about fifteen months of age, when they start saying actual words and understanding their meaning. (Although some infants speak earlier and some speak later.) At about age three, children’s language abilities increase exponentially, and they should be able to form simple sentences as well as understand things that adults say to them.
Adults’ role in their children’s language development is to exaggerate words and sounds so that babies can understand them better. What sounds like a dumbing-down of the language is a valuable simplification that allows infants to start learning and understanding how to communicate. Even before they can speak, adults talk to infants and demonstrate that language is bidirectional; one person speaks, followed by the other. Even if all the baby can do is babble or laugh, they learn to respond to adults’ speech. The high pitch and the simple sounds of baby talk are pleasing to babies’ ears, and we tend to focus on easy consonants like “b,” “m,” and “p,” since those sounds are easy for babies to imitate, and tend to be among the first sounds they produce. Studies at Stanford University in the eighties showed that given a choice between baby talk and regular adult conversation, infants prefer to listen to baby talk.
Babies listen to adults speak in order to develop their own language capacities, so for many years, some childcare experts have theorized that not using baby talk could speed up the process. An article from the The New York Times in 1914 asks, “If we insist on talking baby talk to them, where will they get their model and inspiration to talk correctly?” Although modern linguists don’t fear that children might grow up speaking baby talk for the rest of their lives, many have wondered whether infantilizing the language is necessary for children to learn. Most research, however, has supported baby talk as an important key to child language development. A 2005 study at Carnegie Mellon University showed that child-directed speech helped babies learn words more quickly than regular adult speech. The study theorized that baby talk’s simplifications, along with the accompanying facial expressions and vocal cadences, help kids hook into language faster and more easily than speaking to them in adult terms.
Baby Talk Isn’t Always For Kids
We don’t give up on baby talk as soon as kids are learning the finer points of grammar and diagramming sentences. Adults have particular and special uses for baby talking to other adults, and kids use it to talk to other kids. These specialized uses of baby talk have different functions than adults who use it to teach children language. Baby talk can be used unconsciously in order to patronize or degrade another person. Bullies on the playground might say “Oh, the wittle baby wanna cwy?” when terrorizing a younger or more vulnerable child. The baby talk reinforces the social relationship between the two, with the bully as the powerful aggressor and the target as helpless and submissive.
Adults also use baby talk to communicate with animals, especially household pets. Many pet owners love their animals as much as their children, and speak to them in the same language that they would use to speak to human infants. Their cuteness also elicits our affection the same way that babies do. Our pets don’t understand the words as much as they understand the inflection in our voices or the expressions on our faces. Pets might make association between certain words, behaviors, and rewards (like simple commands or the word “walk”), but it’s not the same as learning the language.
As an adult, using baby talk can feel strange or awkward, but it’s a natural instinct. As weird as baby talk is, not using it would be even weirder. Imagine approaching a baby and saying “Well, hello, sir,” and offering to shake his hand. Who greets their pet by saying “Nice to see you, dog.” As social beings with unique linguistic capacities, baby talk is part of our DNA. The next time you see a mother cooing over her infant or toddler, no matter how ridiculous she sounds, she’s not just engaging in idle chatter; she’s passing on the gift of language.