ERIC Identifier: ED318230
Publication Date: 1989-12-00
Author: Baron, Naomi S.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Languages and Linguistics Washington DC.
The Uses of Baby Talk. ERIC Digest.
This Digest is based on a monograph in the ERIC/CLL "Language in Education"
series, "Pigeon-Birds and Rhyming Words: The Role of Parents in Language
Learning" by Naomi S. Baron. The monograph can be ordered from Prentice Hall
Regents, Mail Order Processing, 200 Old Tappan, NJ 07675 or by calling
Ask the average person what role parents play in their children's language
learning, and you are likely to get one of two responses. You might hear that
parents are irrelevant: Somehow kids manage to pick up language on their own.
Alternatively, the respondent might say that parents talk to young children in
special ways that aid language acquisition.
Such special language is known as baby talk (or motherese, or the more
neutral term child directed speech) and refers to a set of speech modifications
commonly found in the language adults use to address young children (see e.g.,
Snow & Ferguson, 1977; Snow, 1986).
WHY BABY TALK?
The same functional motivations that
underlie adult speech to other adults also shape adult speech to children. That
is, adult-to-child speech is part of the larger framework of conversation we
have with fluent members of a speech community. To understand why baby talk
exists, and why it is sometimes structurally indistinguishable from language
used for similar purposes in speech to adults, we focus on how language
functions in human interactive behavior.
Language-as-interaction can be divided into five main areas: pedagogy,
control, affection, social exchange, and information. Our goal in looking at
each of these five areas is to establish that baby talk is a coherent language
style used both with children and adults, and that it arises for identifiable,
Pedagogy. Many features of baby talk are primarily pedagogical in character.
Consider phonology. The common baby talk techniques of speaking slow,
overenunciating, and overemphasizing one or two words in a sentence ("That's a
truck, Katie. It's a truck") are tailor-made for the 1- or 2-year-old child
trying to segment the speech stream into comprehensible units. Many adults
attempt (without great success) to simplify the terminology used for labeling
the surrounding environment by substituting onomatopoetic variations (e.g.,
choo-choo for train) or familiar names for more complex realities (e.g., calling
a chimpanzee a monkey).
Syntactically, the use of nouns instead of pronouns ("Mommy wants Sarah to
drink her milk") is a logical strategy for reinforcing people's names.
Demonstratives ("That's a ball") are ideal vehicles for teaching labels. Other
syntactic and conversational devices (e.g., heightened grammaticality, shorter
and simpler sentences, limitation of topic, and repetition) offer children
clearer grammatical models than normally found in speech between adults. In much
the same way, by building upon what a child says (through expansion or recast)
adults provide developing speakers with immediate models that are linguistically
related to what they have just said.
Many of the same special language features surface in pedagogically motivated
adult speech to adults. Consider a minister preaching a Sunday sermon. His
speech cadences are characterized by their slowness and clear enunciation.
Particular emphasis is placed on an important word or phrase.
Syntactically, a sermonizing (or lecturing) register is far more grammatical
than everyday language. Among casual speakers addressing adult interlocutors who
might not easily understand what is being said (e.g., nonnative speakers of the
language--or dialect), it is commonplace to use shorter and simpler sentences
than when addressing compatriots fluent in the local patois.
In conversation between adults, the specific features seen in baby talk are
less common. Although we occasionally repeat phrases for emphasis ("It was a sad
day for America, a sad day indeed"), we don't pepper our speech with exact
repetitions or expansions. Nonetheless, adult-to-adult language has special
forms that serve a pedagogical function. An example is what we might call the
"end run recast." A good conversationalist (or teacher) knows how to take what
another person has said and turn it to pedagogical advantage. If a student asks
a question that is not really on the subject, an instructor might say, "That's
an interesting question. It leads us to ask..." whatever the professor wanted to
Control. The control function of language serves a number of goals: from
getting a person's attention, to establishing a social pecking order, to
monopolizing a conversation. Only the first of these is relevant to baby talk,
especially in phonology. Listen to mothers addressing infants. Typically, one
hears a greater range of frequencies than in speech directed to adults. This
range is heavily motivated by a desire to get--and hold--the baby's attention.
Intuitively, mothers seem to understand that babies attend more to novel and
varied signals than to monotones. Another critical device is to increase
speaking volume. A loud "Stop!" will generally get a toddler to halt in her
tracks, even if she doesn't yet understand the meaning of the word.
In conversing with other adults, mature speakers exercise control through a
number of linguistic means. To grab someone's attention, phonological variation
in pitch, volume, or speed can be very effective. Consider the use of
high-pitched speech (a very common feature of baby talk) in addressing hospital
or nursing home patients (Caporael & Culbertson, 1986). Another example is
the conversational control speakers achieve by asking rhetorical questions and
then proceeding to answer them. Structurally, this technique is reminiscent of
the tendency of parents with infants to carry the entire conversational burden,
first asking questions and then providing answers. The functional motivation for
this conversational monopoly is very different when used to address adults
(where it is a form of control) than when used to address children (where
parents are modeling social exchange).
Affection. As with pedagogy, when adults select special language to express
affection, they use many of the same forms with other adults as they do with
children. Just as parents use high pitch and special pronunciations of certain
words to indicate warm feelings for children (drawing out the vowel sound in the
name of a favorite toy, "Do you want to do a pu-u-zzle now?"), spouses and loved
ones often use similar language styles with each other.
These same linguistic markers of affection appear in adult speech to
non-linguistic creatures, including dogs, cats, or even plants. Hirsh-Pasek and
Treiman (1982) coined the term doggerel for the language style many adults use
in addressing canine companions. While at first blush, doggerel resembles baby
talk, it turns out that only some of the linguistic features of baby talk appear
in doggerel (e.g., use of high pitch, repetitions, supplying both questions and
answers). Not surprisingly, these linguistic features tend to be baby talk
features of affection and control, not pedagogy.
An exclusive feature in child-directed speech is the echoing (as an
expression of closeness) of nonce-forms that children invent. For example, when
one child began calling milk ki, his family soon began saying to the child,
"Would you like some ki?" (Husband and wife also affectionately used the word in
conversations with each other.)
Unique to adult-adult conversations that express affection is the use of
substitutions. Recall that adults speaking to children typically substitute one
word (e.g., choo-choo) for another that is presumed to be more difficult (e.g.,
train), or substitute proper nouns for pronouns ("Mommy wants Sarah to drink her
milk") in an attempt to teach proper names. In adult language to adults, these
same lexical substitutions serve not as forms of pedagogy but as expressions of
affection. If a man says to his wife, "Shall we ride the choo-choo to
Philadelphia?", he is not concerned that his mate might have difficulty
pronouncing the initial tr- cluster in train.
Social Exchange. The main function of a good deal of human conversation--with
both adults and children--is to keep social interaction going, even if there is
nothing much to say. Typically, this feat can be accomplished by ostensibly
using language for some other purpose.
When looking at the use of special language for social exchange, especially
in adult-to-child conversation, one finds the same baby talk features already
seen used for other language functions, especially pedagogy and the expression
of affection. Parents often initiate words from the child's own repertoire
(e.g., ki for milk). Syntactically, adult speech is simpler, shorter, and even
occasionally ungrammatical with the goal of facilitating a response from the
child. The same motivation underlies frequent questions (but less frequent
declaratives), repetitions both of one's own utterances and of what the child
has just said, and heavy use of expansions and recasts.
Adults also employ less obvious conversational techniques for maintaining
social interaction. They often slip into the royal we ("Would we like to finish
our spinach?"). They restrict the choice of topics. (Few 4-year-olds become
involved when the conversation turns to budget deficits or the war on drugs.) A
third parental tool for "keeping the conversation going" with very young
children is to assume the role of both speaker and hearer by asking the
question, presuming the response, and continuing the discourse ("Would you like
me to burp you? Yes? I thought that was the problem. There, that's better").
Information. While the sharing of information is indeed an important function
of language, it is also the most neutral structurally. Strict conveyance of
information does not require any special language forms. Throughout the baby
talk literature, there are no baby talk features that are described exclusively
as communicating information. Exchanges that are strictly informational in
character do take place between parent and child (e.g., "Mom, I want cake"), but
the language itself has none of the distinguishing features we have been
observing. The same can be said for "information only" speech directed to
DOES BABY TALK HELP?
Should parents use baby talk in
addressing children? Does it do any harm? Occasionally, use of an isolated baby
talk feature may put a temporary damper on the emergence of a specific
linguistic construction (e.g., delay in the development of pronouns if parents
regularly substitute nouns for pronouns). Overall, though, baby talk as a speech
register has never been shown to hamper linguistic growth.
What about positive benefits? When linguists have asked whether baby talk is
a beneficial speech style, they have been concerned exclusively with whether the
use of baby talk features by parents correlates with a child's subsequent
development of conversation, phonology, meaning, or especially syntax.
By now it is recognizable, however, that pedagogy is but one function of baby
talk. Baby talk is also an instrument of control, a means of expressing
affection, and a device for prompting social interaction. While the pedagogical
effects of baby talk are best measured through the child's subsequent language
development, the effects of these other three functions must be assessed through
the adult speaker: Does the adult gain control? Does the adult's language
express his or her emotions? Does baby talk foster social exchange?
Every parent must individually evaluate the efficacy of baby talk, especially
when it functions for control or as an expression of affection. One parent may
find special language features (such as the use of diminutives) to be a
comfortable way of expressing affection, while another parent might supplement
normal language with lots of hugs and kisses.
What about baby talk and social interaction? Does this use of baby talk
foster language development in the child? Does it benefit the parent? The answer
to both questions is "yes." Human language grows out of people's need to
interact with one another. The child needs to learn the formal words and
constructions that make this interchange possible. The adult needs to feel that
the infant in his arms is a real human with whom he can communicate, even though
the child, as yet, knows only how to gurgle and cry.
Caporael, L. R., & Culbertson, G.H. (1986).
Verbal response modes of baby talk and other speech at institutions for the aged. "Language and Communication, 6," 99-112.
Hirsh-Pasek, K., & Treiman, R. (1982). Doggerel: Motherese in a new context. "Journal of Child Language, 6," 229-237.
Snow, C.E., & Ferguson, C.A. (Eds.) (1977). "Talking to children: Language input and acquisition." Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Snow, C.E. (1986). Conversations with children. In P. Fletcher & M. Garman (Eds.). "Language Acquisition, 2nd edition." Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.