This is how "baby talk" affects little ones learning two languages

Infant-directed speech—better known as "baby talk"—makes babies pay more attention, a new study found.

This is how "baby talk" affects little ones learning two languages

When you've got an adorable infant in front of you, it's very common to find yourself suddenly using "baby talk"—speech that's slower, more animated and more exaggerated compared to how adults normally speak. If you've ever worried whether you should try to break the baby talk habit, a new study offers some reassurance: Babies love it, and they're more likely to actually pay attention to it—especially babies that are learning two languages at home.

UCLA's Language Acquisition Lab partnered with 16 other labs across the world for a study on baby talk—otherwise known as infant-directed speech. Researchers studied 333 bilingual and 384 mono-lingual babies, in age groups of 6 to 9 months and 12 to 15 months. The study measured how the babies responded to different types of speech by playing clips of an English-speaking adult using either baby talk or regular speech. Then they'd measure how long the baby stared in the direction of the sound.


"The longer they looked, the stronger their preference," UCLA professor Victoria Mateu said. "Babies tend to pay more attention to the exaggerated sounds of infant-directed speech." That held true whether or not the babies had been exposed to the English language before. "Baby talk has a slower rate of speech across all languages, with more variable pitch... It varies mainly in how exaggerated it is," the lab's director, Megha Sundara, explained. English-language baby talk is one of the most exaggerated, which the babies picked up on.

For moms and dads wondering if speaking two languages at home will lead to confusion or slower speech development for their babies, the study helps provide some answers. "Crucially for parents, we found that development of learning and attention is similar in infants, whether they're learning one or two languages," Sundara said. "And, of course, learning a language earlier helps you learn it better, so bilingualism is a win-win."

The researchers who took part in the study said its global reach could make a big difference in the understanding of bilingualism and how infants learn. It's one of the first collaborations by the ManyBabies project, involving labs in the U.S., Canada, Europe, Australia and Singapore. As their work goes on, feel free to keep babbling away in baby talk in whatever language you're comfortable with—your baby should still end up right on track.


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