(CNN) — "Goo goo ga ga? Are wu my widdle baby?" If your idea of "baby talk" makes you throw up in your mouth a little, then it's time to get educated.
True baby talk, which a new study shows can boost infant brain and speech development, is actually proper adult speech, just delivered in a different cadence.
"It uses real words and correct grammar, but it does use a higher pitch, a slower tempo and an exaggerated intonation," said Naja Ferjan Ramirez, an assistant professor at the department of linguistics at the University of Washington.
"What people think of as baby talk is a combination of silly sounds and words, sometimes with incorrect grammar," Ferjan Ramirez explained, "like 'Oooh, your shozie wozies on your widdle feets.'"
A parenting speaking style that is used in nearly every language in the world, true "baby talk" became known as "motherese" and today is called "parentese" -- because, after all, it's not just moms who use it. Many dads, grandparents, older siblings, aunts, uncles and babysitters speak parentese, intuitively aware that it helps the baby tune in socially and respond, even if only through babbling.
"Parentese has three characteristics," said Patricia Kuhl, the co-director of the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences at the University of Washington, who has been studying children's early language learning for decades.
"One of them is that it has a higher overall pitch, about an octave higher," Kuhl said. "Another is that intonation contours are very curvy; the highs are higher, the lows are lower, and it sounds excited and happy.
"And then it's slower, with pauses between phrases to give the baby time to participate in this social interaction," Kuhl said.
As it turns out, encouraging the "social brain" is key to boosting a baby's speech and language development, said Kuhl, an internationally known pioneer in the use of brain imaging.
And babies instinctively prefer it -- as if they are wired to respond. Maybe they are.
Kuhl shared a video from an older experiment starring 7-month-old "Paul" to illustrate a baby's preference for parentese.
In the black and white video, Paul sits on his mother's lap in an enclosed space. On Paul's left side, out of site behind a wall, a woman speaks eight seconds of parentese. On his right, a woman speaks in a normal adult tone. Paul samples both, then consistently prefers the voice speaking parentese.
Kuhl's lab has done studies which show when infants listen to speech, "not only does the auditory cortex area in their brain light up, but the motor areas that will eventually speak light up," she said, showing the baby is getting ready to talk back.
"The more parents naturally use parentese in their homes when speaking to their children, the better and faster those language skills develop," Kuhl said. "So, it turns out that parentese is a social catalyst for language. It gets kids not just listening but talking."
In 2018, Kuhl and Ferjan Ramirez published a study that showed when parents were coached in parentese, their babies babbled more and had more words by 14 months than those who were not trained.
In a new study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the team reports on speech development in the same group of babies at 18 months. Despite the fact that all 48 participating families used some parentese at the start of the study, it was the babies of coached parents who showed significant gains in conversational turn-taking and vocalizations between 14 and 18 months.
"Children of coached parents produced real words, such as ball or milk, at almost twice the rate of children whose parents were in the control group," Ferjan Ramirez said.
In addition, she said, babies whose parents were coached had an average vocabulary of 100 words compared to the 60 words in the control group.
Just how did researchers measure the improvement over this period? For an entire weekend when the babies were 6, 10, 14 and 18-months old, all 48 sets of parents dressed their babies with vests with built-in audio recorders that captured all of their interactions.
Then parents randomly assigned to receive instruction then came into the lab for one-on-one coaching when their baby was 6, 10 and 14 months.
After receiving education on the science behind the benefits of speaking to their babies, the parents also listened to themselves using parentese. They were also coached on how to incorporate more parentese into the day, and encouraged to engage their babies in back-and-forth exchanges called conversational turns.
In the lab, an interaction is counted as a "turn" if the baby responds with an utterance within a second or two, Kuhl explained, with more turn-taking highly correlated with the baby's future success in language.
"Babies need to be engaged socially in order to learn language. They have to have a drive to communicate. They have to want to, and parentese seems to help make them want to," Kuhl said.
The study is continuing. At this time the babies are about three, old enough to undergo brain imaging with new MRIs that, Kuhl stresses, are quite safe at that age. While publication of any new findings will take time, Kuhl is encouraged.
"Measures of language skill continue to show that the kids in the coached group are way ahead of the kids in the control group," Kuhl said. "And scans of white and gray matter in the brain will show if there are permanent changes induced by this style of interacting with a child.
"Have we strengthened the connectivity between the areas of the brain responsible for language development?" Kuhl asked. "I'll be very interested to find out."
Over the past few weeks, APC had the fortune to partner with the business community to share an important message with community-development stakeholders; investments in early child care benefit the current workforce and help develop an even stronger workforce for the future. Moreover, we have the data to prove it.
Investing in high-quality ('quality' is key), affordable and accessible child care is the best investment you can make as an industry, business and state. And consequently, it also helps more Alabama children get the very best start in life. The rich and loving interactions that well-trained child care professionals have with young children has already proven to support their future success in school and in life. As that positive cycle continues, more successful children mean more successful adults contributing to the prosperity of our state, our nation and the world.
Yes, investing heavily in high-quality child care is that important.
The roundtable discussions were made possible by the Committee for Economic Development (The Conference Board), and in collaboration with local chambers of commerce, AlabamaWorks and local workforce development committees, Mazda-Toyota Manufacturing USA, and other state partners. We are incredibly grateful for this opportunity to provide a platform for 'real talk' on employees' child care challenges, to gather productive feedback from the local perspectives, and to solicit creative ideas for solutions. I'm so encouraged by the high-level of interest and engagement that was apparent, and we plan to continue these discussions until every Alabama employer finds solutions to meet the unique and diverse child care needs of their employees.
I can't remember a time when the focus on high-quality child care and early childhood development had such widespread vitality in our state. Knowing that there's a growing movement toward what's best for all Alabama children is a remarkable gift of hope for families and for all of us dedicated to the work.
Many blessings to you and your families in the New Year!
l-r: Dean Mitchell, executive director-Dothan Area Chamber of Commerce; Jeff Coleman, Alabama School Readiness Alliance board member; Gail Piggott, executive director-Alabama Partnership for Children; Marian Loftin, founding board member, Alabama Partnership for Children; Stephen Woerner, executive director, VOICES for Alabama's Children and Ryan Richards, executive director-Southeast AlabamaWorks.
Browse some of the media coverage from our events in Birmingham, Dothan, Gadsden, Huntsville, Opelika, and Tuscaloosa:
The Alabama Partnership for Children is partnering with the Georgia Department of Public Health to bring the expertise and resources of the Talk With Me BabyTM initiative to the state of Alabama, and the Feed Me Words campaign will spread public awareness of these resources, as well as the importance of intentional early language and literacy activities for all children.
“Language nutrition” refers to rich language interactions between caregivers and infants and is critical for a child’s socio-emotional and vocabulary development. Talk With Me Baby resources provide both visual and written cues, and bright, positive, baby-friendly designs to help bring the message of language nutrition to all families.
The Dept. of Early Childhood Education is overseeing the implementation of Born Ready, a movement that includes a website and a full plate of social media offerings. Born Ready is the result of collaborative efforts across multiple state agencies.
The BornReady.org website houses information and easy-to-follow, science-based tips designed to show parents how they can prepare their children from the moment they are born for a future in which they reach their full potential. The site also informs parents on what to look for in a quality early childhood education, sparking inquiry and demand for quality in their community. APC Programs are prominently listed under "Parent Resources," and soon the Talk With Me Baby program will be included.
Anyone with a smartphone can now quickly and efficiently access helpful information and available services for families, especially for new parents and those caring for very young children. The new mobile app - AL Parent Manual - is available for download in Google Play and the Apple Store, and is completely free and provides helpful information with active links to websites and phone numbers. Because it is digital, it can be updated in real-time when any changes need to be made so that users have minimal delays when reaching out for help.
Click on the icon below for your mobile device's operating system to download the app now.