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Child Language Development and "Babytalk" Options
risadr
Posted: Monday, March 30, 2009 12:43:11 PM
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One of the things that I pride myself on is that I always told people that I would never become one of those parents who infantalize their children -- using babytalk and made up words. Everyone I encountered, especially while I was pregnant with my daughter, told me that once I had a child, that would all change.

I am pleased to say that it hasn't. Not even a little bit. I have never used babytalk with my daughter and I have forbidden my family (and my husband's) from doing so, either. I have always belonged to the school of thought that if I talk to her like she doesn't understand what I'm saying, she'll never understand what I'm saying. For that reason, I don't even simplify my speech when I'm talking to her, though I've allowed others to do that much. All of this language philosophy has gotten me some strange looks while out in public, mostly from people who think that my language is "too advanced" for her to understand. Given the chance, though, I wouldn't change a thing because my now 18-month-old has a vocabulary on par with many children six months to a year older than she is, and it seems to only grow larger every day.

I know that my daughter's large vocabulary is not solely based on my refusal to use babytalk with her. And I'm not saying that she doesn't use ANY made up words (she still asks for a "boo" when she wants to nurse and uses a "paci" to self-soothe), but for the most part, I can clearly understand what she wants and needs from me, and so can other people.

I guess that all of this is leading up to the question of how other people feel about "babytalk." Is it harmless to "dumb down" one's speech for the (supposed) benefit of a young child, or does it do them more harm than good from a verbal development standpoint. I'm interested in how other people feel about this...
Luftmarque
Posted: Monday, March 30, 2009 1:46:56 PM

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I had a friend once who shared your belief that engaging a pre-verbal child in "babytalk" was somehow harmful to the child's language development. I could never get any answer from him as to why he believed this or where he had got the notion. And, similar to your child, his children both were above average in their acquisition of words, so he felt vindicated in his belief on the basis of one or two anecdotal cases. The academic linguistics community is solidly in the opposite camp however, with numerous studies showing that parents adopt "motherese" as a way to emphasize the aspects of language that infants are sensitive to, keeping the baby engaged in the language game. What sense is there in the notion of "infantalizing" an infant anyway? The good news is that children are so adept at learning language that ignoring clues about what sorts of sounds best get their attention does not seem to delay their development much if at all, as your daughter's large vocabulary indicates. I would just hate to see other people decide to avoid motherese based on your experience.

Sorry if I left any ad hominem arguments in here, it's just that this is a subject that I do feel very strongly about!


References:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baby_talk
http://social.jrank.org/pages/428/Motherese.html
http://www.pbs.org/wnet/brain/episode2/babytalk/index.html
http://www.christinekenneally.com/weblog/motherese/
http://www.bbsonline.org/Preprints/Falk/Referees/
Shelley
Posted: Monday, March 30, 2009 2:52:04 PM
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I'm inclined to agree with you, Luftmarque. Motherese is completely natural and is a beautifully instinctive way of 'conversing' with an infant in his own language. The trick, I think, is to know when to stop. I have four children (three now adults) who have a solid and extensive vocabulary and yet each spent a good year of me babbling and cooing back at them. Having said that, I don't see any evidence that avoiding it causes any great harm and, as long as the absence of harm is the primary motive, parents are best off doing what comes naturally. It's not a competition.
Vickie
Posted: Monday, March 30, 2009 3:11:30 PM
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Its referred to as IDS, Infant Directed Speech. There is nothing wrong with the use of it, unless it continues beyond the point of its being up to the intelligence of the child. When the child grows beyond it and it is time to raise the bar, it is necessary to drop the old language and develop new. It is not much different from the development of vocabulary or foreign languages. To remain in the use of IDS shows a lack of maturity on the part of the parents/models for the child's benefit. To expect too much of the infantile mind regarding dialog is equally unfair. Teaching is what raising children is about.

MTC

Luftmarque
Posted: Monday, March 30, 2009 3:14:19 PM

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Thanks Shelley for your calm post! I know my own reaction to this topic is a bit overdetermined by my own history with my previously-mentioned former friend.

My own child got a combination of a lot of Motherese (I am fascinated by the non-vocabulary non-grammar aspects of speech--the prosody/poetry/emotional subtext, and loved having a person to speak with who was focused on those aspects as well) with the willingness on the part of his mother, me, and most of our friends to include him in adult conversations and to take (somewhat perverse perhaps) delight in his acquisition of "big words." He now (in 8th grade) tests two years advanced in English, so whatever we did didn't harm him too much it would seem.

One part of risadr's post that I got triggered by is the notion of forbidding, in the absence of any scientific evidence, other family members from following their natural inclination to engage in Motherese. Seems likely to engender hurt feelings. But, as you say, there doesn't seem to be any evidence of a harmful effect caused by not using Motherese, so I should probably just let it go!
klee
Posted: Monday, March 30, 2009 5:56:49 PM
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I agree with Luftmarque. I don't intentionally "talk-down" to my children; I just talk to them naturally at their level. My two-year-old, I've noticed, doesn't always understand personal pronouns (though he's getting better at them), so sometimes I use BOTH the simplified and "advanced" version of a sentence. I think this is a good way of making everyone happy. For example, if you say, "Charlie, will you give me the ball, please?" and the child doesn't respond to this, then say, "Charlie, bring Mommy the ball, please." It's working for me.
risadr
Posted: Monday, March 30, 2009 10:01:57 PM
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Luftmarque, I can understand where you're coming from, and I didn't forbid the use of "motherese," I forbade the use of "babytalk." I define babytalk as made up words that have no real meaning or significance in the world, not as babbling, cooing, or otherwise making "noises" at a child to encourage them to continue to explore his/her vocal abilities. The latter is what I would call "motherese" and I did all of those things with my daughter, because they encouraged her to make sounds, and to explore her own voice. I encouraged my family (and my husband's) to do the same, as well. What I didn't want was for people to make up words and use them with her, especially once she did begin speaking, because I didn't want to have to correct the use of made up words later in her verbal development.

Does that make sense?

And, Shelley, I completely agree with your statements that "motherese" is natural and that the trick is knowing when to stop. That's why I referred to infantalizing children. Once a child begins to communicate verbally, the parents are responsible to continue the cognitive growth and development of the child by encouraging speech using real words, rather than made up nonsense.

PS - Thank you for your honest response! I was looking for a good debate!

ETA: Also, when I say that I haven't "simplified my speech," I mean that when she is behaving in a way that is unacceptable, I will tell my daughter that her behavior is "unacceptable," rather than tell her she's being "bad." She's not bad, because there's nothing really inappropriate about her behavior, except that it doesn't belong in a certain setting: it is unacceptable. Just to clarify that little bit...
Citiwoman
Posted: Tuesday, March 31, 2009 9:46:20 AM
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Wow, I invented all sorts of words even before I had kids! I think I make up a new word almost every day and proudly, continue to apply it to everyday life. I am confident my kids don't feel it "dumbs down" anything. Rather, it gives us laughs and sparks creativity. My kids know not to use our flavor of "slang" in writing or in formal situations at school. My kids have a prolific vocabulary, so I'm not too concerned.
Citiwoman
Posted: Tuesday, March 31, 2009 9:49:20 AM
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So I shouldn't tell my kids I don't speak Whinese?
Shelley
Posted: Tuesday, March 31, 2009 10:18:20 AM
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Oh, gosh, yes you must! Whinese is the bane of my life and I've always refuse to respond to it. (Well mostly.) It's up there with children shoving their faces in their parents' and interrupting a conversation. My rule is, if you need to interrupt me, then say excuse me and I'll interrupt the conversation to attend to your urgent need. I'm also not that partial to children screaming for the fun of it.

I do love talking nonsense with my nine-year-old, Citiwoman. We make up seriously silly songs and rhymes and it's the best way to get him giggling when he's had a rough day.
risadr
Posted: Tuesday, March 31, 2009 11:48:23 AM
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I have never heard the term "Whinese" used before. That's clever. I always just tell my daughter that I can't understand her when she doesn't use her words. And I can't stand interrupting, either, which is why my one-year-old already knows that she has to say "excuse me" when she needs my attention if I'm talking to someone else.
risadr
Posted: Tuesday, March 31, 2009 11:50:24 AM
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Citiwoman wrote:
Wow, I invented all sorts of words even before I had kids! I think I make up a new word almost every day and proudly, continue to apply it to everyday life. I am confident my kids don't feel it "dumbs down" anything. Rather, it gives us laughs and sparks creativity. My kids know not to use our flavor of "slang" in writing or in formal situations at school. My kids have a prolific vocabulary, so I'm not too concerned.


There's a difference between making up words because it's fun and creative, and making up words because it makes it easier to understand a child who hasn't yet grasped the concept of a certain word.
krmiller
Posted: Tuesday, March 31, 2009 5:33:01 PM
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I agree with you, risadr. It's interesting to read the different opinions (academic and otherwise) on this topic! I managed to successfully avoid using babbling and similar baby talk with my cousin (who will be 5 this summer) and have pretty much adapted my speech to what she seems to be able to understand and use. We have also made an effort to give our pets names that she can pronounce, since she had a lot of trouble with "Ophelia" (one of our cats) until fairly recently!

Back on topic, I think, from what I remember of my linguistics class, that there's something much more important than the speech of adults around a child to teach the child language skills: encouragement. Children learn language, at least in part, by the response of those around them. They babble randomly, but if they hit on a real word and the adults respond, they know it's something important and they'll keep using that.
Joseph Glantz
Posted: Wednesday, April 1, 2009 9:14:37 AM
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As a kid I loved this poem:

Eletelphony

Once there was an elephant,
Who tried to use the telephant -
No! no! I mean an elephone
Who tried to use the telephone -
(Dear me! I am not certain quite
That even now I’ve got it right.)

Howe’er it was, he got his trunk
Entangled in the telephunk;
The more he tried to get it free,
The louder buzzed the telephee -
(I fear I’d better drop the song
Of elephop and telephong!)

Laura E. Richards
Luftmarque
Posted: Wednesday, April 1, 2009 11:34:44 AM

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Risa: Thanks for the clarification. I was responding as much to an old situation as I was to your post. If I understand you correctly, then you and I may be on the same page after all. My wife and I never deliberately restricted the vocabulary we used with our son and took delight whenever he said something precocious (I'm not going to recommend that as a parenting style, though!). We did enjoy and repeat some of his neologisms, but that falls more into the category of wordplay, and is far from what I think you're against.

kmiller:
Quote:
It's interesting to read the different opinions (academic and otherwise) on this topic!
If anybody knows of an academic opinion opposed to babbling/Motherese I'd love to read it.

Quote:
Back on topic, I think, from what I remember of my linguistics class, that there's something much more important than the speech of adults around a child to teach the child language skills: encouragement. Children learn language, at least in part, by the response of those around them. They babble randomly, but if they hit on a real word and the adults respond, they know it's something important and they'll keep using that.
This is precisely the argument in favor of Motherese--it's the positive feedback loop that helps a language learner gradually shape her speech into her native language.
risadr
Posted: Wednesday, April 1, 2009 12:52:06 PM
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Luftmarque wrote:

We did enjoy and repeat some of his neologisms, but that falls more into the category of wordplay, and is far from what I think you're against.


Exactly! We have never discouraged her from calling french fries "ya-yas" or calling her pacifier a "paci." I'mso glad that I was able to clarify. : ) The "babytalk" that I'm talking about is along the lines of calling a "bath" a "batsy-watsy," as one poster in response to a thread on a parenting message board I frequent quoted her mother-in-law as saying. When I read that, it took a lot of willpower to keep from letting my head fall on the desk... lol
Citiwoman
Posted: Thursday, April 2, 2009 12:46:24 AM
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I do understand the distinction between inventing "clever" words and just repeating verbatim words that kids ("paci" and the like). It certainly has generated discussion here. I suppose we did some of the latter variety (apparently deemed negatively by some) also. When my daughter called her pacifier a "peeshia" instead of a pacifier, we thought it was hilarious and also called it that. Very possibly, we did the same with her other mispronunciations. Perhaps, then, it's a miracle that she spoke early, read early and has tested high on IQ tests for the gifted program at the age of seven.

Parents, especially first-time parents, do a lot of crazy things. I'm a proponent of cutting them some slack.
Luftmarque
Posted: Thursday, April 2, 2009 2:11:03 AM

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Now I'm feeling a little sheepish about being so combative about this. Seems to me that the one thing that all our above-average language-learning children have in common is growing up in a language-rich environment among smart above-average language users. I'd bet that one has to do something much more drastic than use or not use babytalk, made-up words, or even cutesy little infantile phrases to thwart the ability of the human child to acquire language.
krmiller
Posted: Thursday, April 2, 2009 10:38:35 PM
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Well put, luftmarque. :D I think we pretty much all agree here, even if we started out using different words!
Romany
Posted: Friday, February 19, 2016 1:11:43 PM
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Ah bloody'ell! Now Spammers are reviving 7 year old threads in order to make mischief? What absolutely rubbish behaviour.
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