Speaking exaggerated baby talk to your infant is a good thing

29 March 2017

Parents and carers who speak exaggerated 'baby talk' to their infants might irritate those around them, but they do seem to be helping their charges with language acquisition. Talking to a child from an early age, while stressing accents, helps it to discover words and thus to acquire language. These are the conclusions of linguist Brigitta Keij in her thesis 'Rhythm & Cues. Metrical structure and segmentation in early language acquisition'. Keij will obtain her PhD on Friday 31 March from Utrecht University, funded in part by the NWO Free Competition programme.

Mother and baby in the Babylab of Utrecht University. Image: Ed van RijswijkImage: Ed van Rijswijk

In the Babylab at Utrecht University (specifically, the Utrecht Institute of Linguistics OTS), linguists gather data on the ways in which very young children take their first steps in language acquisition. Using language is the first step towards developing an individual identity. Language is an extremely complex phenomenon, which makes a child's ability to acquire it during the first year of life all the more remarkable. Much remains unclear on the exact way infants do this.

Brigitta Keij investigated the early acquisition of language rhythm and its use in speech segmentation, or the dividing of speech into words. Keij did this for Dutch and Turkish and concluded that infants are able to learn the rhythm of their native language, shaped by accents, within the first six months of life. She also found that eight-month-old infants use stress as an aid for speech segmentation, although not in a language-specific manner. It appears that infants start by discovering sentence rhythm before going on to learn word rhythm. This transition may depend on how advanced infants are in their vocabulary development.

First sentence rhythm, then word rhythm

Keij conducted a series of experiments to investigate the development of rhythmic preferences and word segmentation. At six months, infants learning Dutch seem to have a preference for Dutch word rhythm and at eight months they are already using stress to find words in running speech. Infants learning Turkish have no preference for Turkish word rhythm at six months, but they do have a preference for Turkish sentence rhythm at four months, showing rhythmic sensitivity as well. At eight months, infants learning Turkish use the same stress patterns to discover words as infants learning Dutch, which means that this process is not language-specific in these cases. The results suggest that infants use their early rhythmic sensitivity to discover sentence rhythm before discovering word rhythm.

The study results lead to the recommendation that parents should talk to their child from an early age and not be afraid to use 'baby language'. Baby-oriented speech exaggerates stresses, which helps infants discover words.

Further information

Brigitta Keij (b. 1986) completed her thesis Rhythm & Cues. Metrical structure and segmentation in early language acquisition under the project Parsing and Metrical Structure: Where Phonology Meets Processing, at Utrecht Institute of Linguistics OTS, Faculty of Humanities, Utrecht University. The research was funded with a grant from the NWO Free Competition. The main applicant and supervisor is Prof. René Kager and the assistant supervisor is Prof. Wim Zonneveld.

Source: NWO