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  • Teresa Newmark, MA, CCC-SLP

How to Speak with Your Baby: Learning Parentese

My parents were over the other day visiting their 3-month-old granddaughter. My mother greeted Madeleine with a giant smile and a long and high-pitched “Heellloooo! How are YOOUUU? I MISSED you!” My father stood to the side, raising his eyebrows at me, but sure enough, when he took Madeleine, his voice went up an octave.

What is happening here? Do people lose their minds when talking to babies, or is there a reason that we all revert to a high-pitched, slow, and sing-song-y place?

The answer is that there is a reason, and there is even a name for the language we use when talking to babies. It is called Parentese. Using Parentese can be a great way to teach your child language while entertaining him or her all at the same time.

How to speak Parentese

  1. Vary your intonation and the melody of your speech. Speak in a singsong.

  2. Use a higher pitch.

  3. Slow your speech. Use elongated vowels and consonants.

  4. Stress certain words by increasing their pitch, intensity, and length. “How are YOOUUU?”

  5. Use precise pronunciation and correct grammar.

  6. Use exaggerated facial expressions.

  7. Repeat, repeat, repeat

Pitfalls to avoid

  1. Parentese is not baby talk. Baby talk is associated with changing the pronunciation of sounds to mimic the mispronunciations made by babies (think Elmer Fudd: “Be vewy, vewy, quiet. I’m hunting wabbits). It is also associated with grammatical errors (“me is hungry”). Parentese is, in fact, the opposite of baby talk. It is a language that is spoken precisely and with emphasis. There is a time and place for playing with sounds and words by shortening or manipulating them, but in this instance, “baby talk” is not recommended because it compromises the quality of the language model presented.

  2. Parentese is not “dumbed down” adult speech. Rather, it could be described as “amped-up” adult speech. We use the same pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary as when speaking to an adult but add interest and emphasis to make it more exciting, funny, and understandable for a child who is learning a language for the first time.

  3. Parentese does not leave out words. Speaking in sentences where words are omitted (“I go to bathroom”) is called “telegraphic speech,” and telegraphic speech has no place in Parentese. Grammatically correct, full sentences are essential for helping babies learn the rules of their language.

Speaking Parentese is a wonderful way to bond with your baby while enhancing his or her language development. It focuses on presenting good language models in a way that is tailored to how babies learn and what babies enjoy.


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