Do you go ga-ga for babies? No, I mean, do you literally go “goo-goo, ga-ga” and play around with the prosody of your voice when you see the precious face of a wee little babe? If so, whether or not you know it consciously, you’re probably speaking “motherese,” a special type of speech that’s used around babies and small children.
It’s not a language in and of itself but rather a strategy for communicating with a specific subset of the world’s population — the newest, freshest and (some might say) the cutest of them. But what’s at the root of this way of talking? What is it that makes us unconsciously aware that we wouldn’t and shouldn’t talk to a baby the same way we’d talk to, say, our boss? Keep reading to find out more about motherese.
What Exactly Is Motherese?
“Motherese” is so named because it’s most often spoken by moms (and dads, too!) of newborn children. It’s also called infant-directed speech (IDS), child-directed speech or caretaker speech. Anyone who’s interacting with a baby is technically capable of speaking in motherese (though some tough folk out there might want to spare themselves the embarrassment of doing it in public).
You’ve probably heard it in action before. It’s the same way you might speak to a particularly cute pooch or a baby bunny with whiskers and a wrinkled nose. Maybe it’s something inherent about the nature of cute things that makes us want to nurture and protect them, that awakens our parental instincts — and brings out our most cartoonish, shrillest and singsong-iest voices. But behind all the fun (and for some, annoyance) is some science that helps explain why this phenomenon is so common in people, especially parents — and apparently all around the world, too.
The Science Behind Motherese
Theories explaining why motherese is so prevalent are tied to the idea that when it comes to acquiring language, infants absorb linguistic information not only from what we say but also from how we say it. The characteristic elements of “baby talk” include talking more slowly, using shorter sentences and sliding up and down the range of one’s pitch more frequently than in speech with other adults. It doesn’t necessarily all have to be “goo-goo, ga-ga” all the time — the words in motherese are often actually real words — but the linguistic bits and bytes are often simplified so that babies can pick up on them more easily. With more noticeable variations and exaggerations in pitch, babies can start to identify the rhythms and melodies of the language or languages their caretakers are speaking to them. In fact, babies are virtual prodigies when it comes to acquiring new languages; the neuroplasticity of their brains makes it so that they’re primed to pick up their native tongues even before they leave the womb. Motherese helps them speed up this process, it seems.
It’s clear that infant-directed speech is a phenomenon of its own distinct from everyday dialogue. A Princeton University study looked at a group of 12 English-speaking mothers and how their voices changed when speaking to their 7- to 12-month-old infants. The unique timbres, or sound profiles, of their voices were so recognizably different from how they usually spoke to other adults that with only one second of recorded speech, the study said, machine learning algorithms were able to figure out if the mothers were talking to their babies or to another adult.
The study also illustrated that the concept of motherese was consistent across at least 10 languages, including Mandarin, German, Hungarian, Polish, Spanish and more. Of course, the variation in phonologies and sound structures of each of these languages is different, and the syllables and words themselves that parents are infant-directing are unique to each of these languages.
Along with nonverbal cues and body language, motherese can be a way to grab and hold infants’ attention, too, while we’re trying to teach them how to navigate the world. Their baby brains are activated more when they can identify individual words as the building blocks of the languages they will one day speak, and infant-directed speech is specially designed to help them do this.