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January 13, 2014 at 5:00 AM

Listen up, parents: Your baby can’t talk yet, but she’s absorbing every word

Researchers have long known that babies whose caregivers speak to them frequently learn more words — especially when parents use baby-talk, or “parentese.” Now, a new research study underscores the importance of the style of speech and the social context.

If you’re a parent, the quick takeaway is this: The more you talk to your baby face-to-face, using baby-talk, the more words your child will know when he or she reaches the age of two.

The most effective technique is to exaggerate vowel signs and raise the pitch of your voice. When you use these techniques, your baby is more likely to babble back — a sign that he or she is picking up the tools needed to learn new words.

The latest research comes from Patricia Kuhl, co-director of the UW’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences and one of the country’s foremost researchers in language development in infants. The research is unique because “this is the first time babies have been recorded at home” while their parents spoke to them using parentese, Kuhl said.

How did researchers know that parentese worked?

Twenty-six babies wore vests containing audio recorders for eight hours a day over four days. Software analyzed the style of speech and context. When the babies reached their 2-year-old birthday, their parents filled out a questionnaire measuring how many words the youngsters knew. The toddlers exposed to the most “parentese” in a one-on-one situation knew 433 words, on average, compared with 169 words recognized by the toddlers whose parents used the least babytalk.

Although Kuhl has been studying neuroscience and early learning for years in the lab, she didn’t really know if parents used parentese at home, or how they used it. And although four days of recordings may not sound like much, Kuhl said it yielded 4,075 30-second intervals of recorded speech — and proved to be a powerful predictor of the babies who knew the most words when they were two, regardless of their parent’s socioeconomic status.

Her lab has also discovered that babies gain no advantage when listening to words being spoken while watching a DVD; while the video holds their attention, the babies pick up no language skills. “We think there’s something special with face-to-face communication,” Kuhl said.

Three years ago, Kuhl gave a TEDtalk titled “The Linguistic Genius of Babies,” which incorporates much of her research; it’s been watched more than 1.5 million times. You can watch it here:

Comments | More in News | Topics: baby-talk, early ed, Research

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