What is Motherese?



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.

Language development

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

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15 replies

  1. This made me think of so much more than the early days of language. How we communicate throughout our children’s lives. I have a tone I use which, without shouting means “don’t mess with me, do as I say”. I am also reminded of times when life as a child or teenager was tough. My mom used a certain tone when she would sit down with me and say “tell me what is wrong”. It always worked.

    • I need to work on my ‘don’t mess with me tone’! At the moment I have a sore throat and it’s hard to be heard over the racket. They’re running rings around me
      I was fascinated watching my kids learn language. Every time they formed a new construction i’d make a mental note.Hubby would come home from work and I might say something like ‘they used the present progressive today!’ I wish i’d kept a log, although maybe that’s a step too far.

  2. My daughter’s first word was “no” and her second word was “dada.” I figured she would be okay: she knew how to set boundaries, and she knew how to get what she wanted.

    • My kids’ were mama, dadda, biccie! They also developed a few words of their own that none of us have ever really understood. They’d say ‘that’s a bit naw naw’. I wish I knew what it meant. I’d ask and they just repeat it to me.

      • I’ve heard that twins are especially inclined to have some private vocabulary, if not an entire private language. I always thought I wanted twins (get it all over at once) but spacing them out a couple years has worked okay, too. 🙂

      • Oh I’d really be in trouble if they had the use of their own, entire language. :0)
        I’ve found the last few years fairly intense – we have no family nearby. Also have some mummy guilt as we’ve never managed much one-to-one time.They’re good friends, but can argue a bit and have recently become competitive. Probably standard as in most sibling relationships, but perhaps more intense. They are very much individuals, although having a boy and girl definitely makes that less of an issue.

      • I can understand how having mixed twins (is that an acceptable way to say that?) would circumvent some of the differentiation conflict I’ve seen with same-gender twins. Of course, that kind of thing happens with non-twins, too: I think my daughter has had an easier time being her own person in the wake of a brother than my two younger sisters did.

  3. My son, on the other hand, wouldn’t speak until he could produce a full sentence. I believe his first words were, “Please pass the mashed potatoes,” or something like that. Thankfully, my sister, an early childhood educator, taught him (and us) some basic sign language so we could communicate until he was ready to use his voice.

    • That’s amazing. Sign is supposed to really enhance a child’s overall language skills.My niece is a whiz at sign and it’s really helped her reading and writing etc. Apparently if a child is mid-tantrum, signing can help them find their way out of it. Maybe they’re too angry to talk, but they can manage to sign and say what’s bothering them (if you don’t already know).

  4. It is fascinating stuff. I watched a show about how swearing (especially if the person isn’t inclined to swear much) can actually provide relief, say if you hit your finger with a hammer, or a woman in labour might cope better with the pain if she turns
    the air blue!

  5. Such a great post! Loved the in-depth look on how we speak to our children and how to facilitate their language development. I’ve just been thinking about when to stop speaking “Motherese” just recently, so this was timely! I’m enjoying your blog and look forward to reading more! 🙂

    • Thanks Marla! That is probably my most popular post of all 🙂 I’m fascinated by how children learn language. Thankfully, using motherese (and when to stop using it) seems to come naturally to parents, so we don’t need to worry about the way we talk to them.
      I’ll pop over to your blog for a read 🙂

  6. Thanks for linking up! The mountain baby store looks amazing! 🙂


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