I placed a sea of purple hair accessories on the counter. The sales associate smiled as she picked up one of the elastics. “Oh my goodness, this widdle ewastic is so cute!” I stared at her, trying to smile through clenched teeth. As she handed me the receipt she wished me a “weawy weawy great day.”
I wish I was exaggerating. I didn’t have my daughter with me so she was definitely speaking to me and I knew from the short time I had been in the store that the 20-something sales clerk was capable of R’s and L’s.
It’s this kind of speech that is often associated with the term baby talk: speaking to babies (and sometimes adults) using phonetically incorrect words. It’s common to see an L replaced with a W or D substituted for T: ‘what a cute widdle girl.’
To illustrate the commonly understood definition, here are the first two entries I found when I Googled ‘baby talk’:
Childish talk used by or to young children
Adults imitation of the speech of a young child
If you dig a little deeper you will find that the term baby talk is often used interchangeably with the more scientific term Child Directed Speech (CDS) or parent / motherese. However, CDS is not baby talk in the childish-imitation way many people use it today.
Child Directed Speech, or parentese, is the naturally melodic way that adults tend to talk to babies. We generally slow down a little, exaggerate (tone and facial expressions), hold eye contact and simplify our words when interacting with babies and toddlers. Doing this helps hold baby’s attention, especially if you respond to the sounds they are making as well.
Imitation can be helpful when communicating with babies. As they coo or start to babble they love to see your reaction and hear you respond with the same sound. For example, if baby is saying ‘buuu buuuuu’ they will delight in seeing you smile, maybe tickle their little feet, while you repeat ‘buuu buuuu.’
Parentese is inclusive of simpler (more childlike) language such as jammies (pajamas), upie (up) and da-da (dad) to name a few but, notice, that these words are all phonetically correct without letter substitutions. Baby talk, using the commonly understood definition, can be confusing to a child.
Children will say words incorrectly as their repertoire of sounds grows and it’s important, regardless of how cute their words may be, to model the proper pronunciation when you speak so they hear how the word should really sound.
I fell into the trap with my daughter. “Lily can you put your books away?” “O-tay.” I thought o-tay was the cutest thing ever and would structure questions so that she would say it, often smiling and repeating it back to her. But I quickly learned through her speech therapy how detrimental that had been, particularly as therapy went on and the K sound was one that she had trouble mastering. Lily will be five in October and is just now able to make it spontaneously and consistently. The delay isn’t because I repeated o-tay to her but it certainly didn’t help.
So often, I hear people complaining about baby talk and how they despise it. “That baby will never learn to talk properly!” “Gives me goosebumps!” “Do they know how ridiculous they sound!?” The list goes on and on but in almost every instance it’s because we have overheard someone speaking as the sales woman spoke to me. It’s an unfortunate confusion because parentese is a developmentally beneficial way of communicating with baby.