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The Power of Baby Talk

Surefire Vocabulary Boosters

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Try these science-backed ideas when you and your baby chat.
The Power of Baby Talk
Here’s something to tell people who criticize baby talk:

A new study suggests that the more “baby-talk words” an infant hears early in life, the faster he will grasp language.

Of course, not all baby talk is created equal. Research indicates that some words are better at helping tots develop their vocabulary more quickly.

And, get this: The words with the most clout include some that you may already be using—for example, those ending in the letter y, like mommy and doggy, and word combos with repeat sounds, such as tum-tum and night-night.

In the study, infants who heard more of those words were faster at picking up new words—perhaps because they may be easier to identify in speech.

Here’s how the findings came about:

Researchers at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland identified 47 infants from English-speaking households and recorded the speech used to address the babies.

Then they checked the recordings for features that typify baby-talk words, including diminutives (the words ending in y), reduplication (words with repeat sounds), and onomatopoeia, which, you may recall from middle school or high school, are words that sound like what they are. Think: woof, achoo, and ahem.

The linguists then examined the rate of the babies’ language development by measuring the tots’ vocabulary at 9, 15, and 21 months. In a win-win for baby talk, they found that tikes who had heard a higher proportion of diminutive words and word combos were faster at picking up new words between 9 and 21 months.

Onomatopoeic baby talk did not impact vocab growth.

How to Boost Baby’s Word Bank

Of course, one of the best things to do to boost your baby’s word bank is to just keep chatting. You can’t rush language development, but you can encourage it. Keep these tips in mind.

  • Talk, talk, talk to your baby. Use diminutives, reduplication, and even parentese (the higher-pitch voice and stretched out vowels that capture a baby’s attention). Do it even if you think you sound silly. Research suggests that exaggerated tones help infants identify different vowel sounds.
  • Read, sing, and talk to baby. Simply put: Communicate. Use multiple channels. Croon a tune, hum a lullaby, read a poem. Experts agree: The number of words a baby hears in the first three years of life is a better predictor of a child’s vocabulary at age 11 than any other factor—including the parents’ IQs, socioeconomic status, or the school that the child attended.

Describe everything. Narrate your lives. Serve up a yummy breakfast and a tasty dessert. Look for pretty butterflies, green leaves, and bumpy rocks. At 18 months, babies raised in homes with a rich language environment—where more words were spoken—understood more words and learned new words at faster rates, and their brain processing speeds were faster.

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