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Baby, Talk To Me

New study says baby talk best way to prepare infants for speech

FRIDAY, Jan. 11, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Forget playing Mozart while Baby Snooks swims in the womb. And don't bother reading Junior to sleep with soothing Beatrix Potter stories. The best way to bring out the genius in your little genius is to talk "baby talk."

So says a new study in the current issue of New Scientist.

Indeed, the exaggerated phrases and overly enunciated words we coo over the carriage and crib are among the best ways for babies to pick up vowel sounds -- the first step in learning to talk, says study author Patricia Kuhl, co-director of the Center for Mind, Brain and Learning at the University of Washington at Seattle.

"We think that infant-directed speech (or baby talk) plays an important role because it is clearer speech, which likely helps in establishing idealized pronunciation of the sounds of a language," says Kuhl.

By comparison, she says, "when adults talk to each other, they speak very rapidly, not clearly, so most of the sounds are swallowed." With baby talk, we enunciate words more dramatically, and that, in turn, helps ingrain the sounds in the speech-learning center of a baby's brain.

It's important, however, for parents to understand that "baby talk" doesn't mean "gaga" and "goo-goo," says Kuhl, but rather simple, exaggerated phrases.

"It's not nonsense language. We actually clean up our act when we talk to [babies]; we do it naturally, without being aware of it," says Kuhl.

For child psychologist Alan Hilfer, the baby talk theory makes sense.

"There are a series of neural pathways in the brain that get encoded, usually in infancy, that help make us receptive to different sounds and sensory input later in life," says Hilfer, coordinator of the Learning Disabilities Clinic at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Baby talk, he says, is one way to encode those neural pathways with the earliest language basics, the sounds on which words are built.

"Then, when the baby starts getting ready to speak, they have this kind of built-in database of sounds upon which to draw their word formation," says Hilfer.

More importantly, he says, there is only a "small window of opportunity to encode these neural pathways," so the earlier Mom and Dad start, the easier it will be for the child to begin speaking.

Kuhl's study used a computer model as a kind of substitute "baby brain" to see if the sounds of baby talk could influence the ability to detect vowels more easily than when normal adult speech was spoken.

To test the theory, Kuhl's research team wrote a simple computer program that picked out key vowels in English -- "o," "oo," and "ee" were chosen because the sounds are very distinctive.

Then the researchers recorded the voices of 10 mothers, first, speaking in baby talk, then speaking in normal "adult" phrasing with other adults. All were actual conversations recorded while mothers played with their babies, and later when they talked to the adults. Three words were chosen from the conversations -- sheep, shoe and sock -- all selected because of their distinctive sound.

The job of the computer was to pick out the three words, first from the baby talk conversations, then from the adult conversations.

The result: After analyzing some 200 words spoken in "baby talk," the computer was successful in locating the three target words.

But when the same 200 words were spoken in "adult speak," only the double e sound ("ee") of the word sheep was recognized.

Based on the results, Kuhl believes baby talk does play an important role in child development.

"Baby talk is really 'clear speech' that we think helps infants learn," says Kuhl.

For Hilfer, the study results are intriguing and consistent with what we know about how babies learn to talk.

"I would agree with their conclusion. Baby talk does play an important role, even though at some point it's also important that the child cross the threshold to hearing only adult-speak," says Hilfer. That point, he says, is usually when the child begins putting together words and sentences.

If you're wondering if you should start baby-talking when your child is still in the womb, Kuhl says it won't help conversational skills develop any sooner.

The womb, she says, "is such a noisy place that the only sound that gets through is the pitch of the voice, not the higher frequencies that would be necessary to hear the difference between one vowel and another."

What To Do: For more information on how children learn to speak, visit the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. For a tip sheet on ways parents can encourage their baby to talk, visit From Zero To Three: The National Center for Babies, Toddlers and Families.

SOURCES: Interviews with Patricia Kuhl, Ph.D, professor, Speech & Hearing Sciences, and co-director, Center for Mind, Brain, and Learning, University of Washington at Seattle; Alan Hilfer, Ph.D, senior staff psychologist and coordinator, Learning Disabilities Clinic, Maimonides Medical Center, Brooklyn, N.Y.; Jan. 5, 2002, New Scientist
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