Have you ever noticed when chatting to your child how your speech changes? Does it become more slow and deliberate? Maybe you’ve wondered if this was the right way to address them, or perhaps someone has told you that you should speak properly to your child. Well, you are speaking to your child in a style of language commonly referred to as ‘motherese’, more recently ‘parentese’, and by linguists – child-directed speech or CDS.
What is motherese?
Thankfully we don’t need to learn motherese, it appears to happen instinctively when we speak to young children. The primary caregiver usually adopts the style of CDS when addressing their child. They will use a slower delivery, exaggerated intonation, and a higher pitch. The varying intonation and emphasis gently introduces children to language by getting their attention. If you don’t talk in this way, you’ll soon lose their attention and they’ll move on to something more interesting. Motherese gives children important lessons in the foundations of spoken language. The great news is that this is the best way to talk to your young child – linguists in the western world have collated a vast amount of evidence to show the benefits of CDS on children’s language acquisition.
The first markers of a child’s verbal understanding begin when they are between nine and ten months old. At this stage the can reliably respond to a few words. Incredibly, by the time they are 13 months old they will understand around fifty words. The child is already building an understanding of its world in the few months before it speaks. It’s always fascinating to know your infant understands what you’re saying to them, but yet they may not be able to articulate a response. This is because their perceptive vocabulary (words they understand) advances before their productive vocabulary (words they can say). This is most pronounced in a child’s second year as they will be able vocalise roughly half of the words they understand. It’s hardly surprising that a child’s first words are the items of most importance – mamma, dada, biccie! A child’s first words will always be concrete nouns and verbs, which carry the important nuggets of information as a result of motherese. The parent will pronounce the nouns with exaggerated intonation. By around eighteen months of age, a child may produce around fifty words, but by around twenty-one months a child will have a vocabulary growth spurt and learn around ten new words every week. Evidence from researchers has shown this spurt in early words has been observed to coincide with developments in play behaviours.
The important role of caregiver
All of this demonstrates the importance of conversation between a child and his or her primary caregiver, whether it’s the mother, father or grandparent. This is because a young child spends most of their time with that person and may experience a limited number of interactions with others until they start nursery or preschool. It is important to immerse your child in conversation by talking them through your daily chores and errands, involve them in conversations by asking for their opinions. Pause and maintain eye contact to allow them time and to signal you expect them to respond. Encourage conversation at every opportunity – say hello to the lady at the supermarket and let them talk to relatives on the phone. For a young baby, encourage speech by teaching actions along with speech e.g. blow kisses, wave to say good-bye.
The importance of play and interaction
A fantastic way to help your child’s language development is through play. Get down on the floor and have a tea party or take turns racing cars down a ramp! Play is vital for a child’s language development as their comprehension of words is facilitated by the associated actions. The best forms of play are those which serve to evoke a response from your child such as – role-play, games involving taking turns, looking at story books together and allowing the child to describe the pictures. Sing songs with associated actions, like itsy bitsy spider, ring-a-rosie or make up songs. This repetition and action will help to instil the meaning of the words. It may sound obvious but try to interest your child by asking questions about what they see in a story book. This provides them with an opportunity to learn and practise new words by telling the story themselves.
How young children learn language
An appreciation of how children learn language is both helpful and fascinating. You may have noticed how your child learns words through their associated qualities in terms of; shape, size, texture, sound and movement. E.g. anything round – tyres and biscuits may be described as moons, or anything on four legs may be called a dog! Or specs of dust, crumbs or anything small may be called ‘a fly’. Soft objects such as rugs, blankets and cuddly toys might all be called teddies for a time. A supportive environment with gentle direction, rather than telling a child they are wrong will help build upon their vocabulary.
For how long is motherese beneficial?
Motherese is beneficial as long as you continually develop your speech to match the pace of your child’s progression. Gradually expose them to more detailed grammatical speech as they are ready.
Some experts think you should leave motherese behind when your child turns two, others think that it can useful for longer. Essentially, mothers know best and are the experts when it comes to communicating with their own children. Young children use language in a very similar way to their primary caregiver up until the time when they begin nursery. Then they use their own creativity and draw on a new broader range of sources and this will be reflected in their speech. This is where I currently find myself. We’ve gradually moved on from motherese as I’ve noticed if I talk to them like babies, they act like babies!
Some parents of children experiencing speech development problems have been encouraged by speech therapists to adopt the style of motherese when addressing their child. However, if you’re at all concerned about your child’s speech development, contact your G.P. who can rule out ear problems and infections and refer you to a specialist if required.
Originally published in Mums and Tots Winter Issue 2013.
Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net