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Baby Talk

Dr. Anne Fernauld, a psychology professor from Stanford University, has been studying the language acquisition skills of babies, toddlers, and early elementary-aged children.  Her studies have generated some interesting findings, among them, that parents baby-talking to their infants is contraindicated for child language development.  Dr. Fernauld makes the following recommendations to parents of infants and toddlers.

  • Do not use baby talk.  Instead, use normal, adult words, and speak them in complete sentences.  So, instead of saying, “Baby wanna baba?”, the preferred interrogatory would be, “Would you like to have your bottle?”
  • Use long sentences that make connections from one word to another.  So, instead of saying, “We’re going for a ride!”, the preferred declaratory statement would be, “We’re going to take a ride in the Buick because we need to go to Kroger’s to get some groceries.”
  • Do not rely on adult conversations that your child may overhear and conversations that your child may hear on television to teach your child language skills.  These conversations (in which your child is a third party) do not have the impact on your child’s vocabulary that conversations directed first-person at your child (or directly with your child) will have.  (Note:  reading to your child is conversation directed first-person at your child, so it offers great benefits for language development.)

Some parents may perceive this to be of little consequence.  After all, many generations of parents have used baby-talk to communicate with their infants.  However, consider that language acquisition gaps (between those children who are spoken to with baby-talk and those who are spoken to in adult language) begin to manifest at about the age of 18 months.  By the time children enter kindergarten, those who have not been frequently exposed to a diverse adult vocabulary can be far behind their classmates, putting them at an academic disadvantage that can set the stage for future academic under performance, diminished enjoyment of learning and confidence in one’s own ability to learn, and diminished professional accomplishment and income earning potential.

As a society, we may have been, for generations, anecdotally aware of the connection between parents’ vocabularies and children’s language development, despite the ongoing use of baby-talk with infants.  Prior generations referred to young children with strong vocabularies as having “a good ear for the language.”  These children frequently heard their parents speak using adult words and correct grammar; when these children heard words used incorrectly, they knew something sounded wrong.  They may have been too young to understand what, specifically, was wrong, or different as compared to the speech patterns to which they were accustomed, but they recognized that they had heard one or more words used in a way that was “not right” (according to the words of one child).  It was as if these children understood, on an instinctual level, what constituted good grammar and were genetically programmed to have a large vocabulary.  Because of Dr. Fernauld, however, we now know that this has less to do with nature and more to do with nurture . . .  that is to say that it has less to do with instinct and genetics and more to do with early and ongoing exposure to a rich vocabulary properly used.

Certainly, Dr. Fernauld’s findings will generate worthwhile discussion between academics, researchers, educators, parents, and others.   You are encouraged to stay abreast of significant developments as this unfolds.

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