Talk to Me, Baby: The Research Behind Language Development

Baby talk

The soft coos and playful babbling of infants may sound like pleasant nonsense to a parent’s ear. But as babies make these noises, they are making important progress toward language development: they are literally finding their voice. How caregivers respond to their children’s babbling can have a major effect on language development.

Finding Their Voice

Children typically progress from crying (birth), to cooing (6–8 weeks), to babbling (6 months), to their first words (around 1 year). Babbling — short strings of varied sounds in distinct patterns and the repetition of syllables (e.g., ba, da, ma) — is an essential step toward language development in children. It sounds like nonsense because it largely is; at this stage, children aren’t yet trying to communicate with language, but rather they are exploring sounds. They are learning how to speak by experimenting with their mouths and vocal cords.

Although babbling babies aren’t yet trying to communicate through speech sounds, studies have shown that a caregiver’s response can mean the difference between a child progressing and a child regressing in development.

A Telling Experiment

In 1975, Dr. Edward Tronick and his colleagues at the Children’s Hospital in Boston, MA, first presented the results of their “still face” experiment. A video recording of the experiment can be hard to watch. At first, the video shows a typical mother–baby interaction: as the 1-year-old child coos, babbles, laughs and points, the mother encourages her with smiles and turn-taking talk.

Then the mother turns away from the child. When she turns back, she is unresponsive, her face held still, as the child tries to re-engage in play. After only a couple of minutes, the child is visibly distressed. She cries, loses physical control and turns away from her mother. In more extended versions of the experiment, the children eventually withdrew from their parents.

More recently, Tronick repeated the “still face” experiment with 4-month-old infants. He found that the infants remembered the experience; when the experiment was repeated 2 weeks later, the infants who had experienced “still face” before had a more rapid physiological response than did infants who were exposed to it for the first time.

Caretaker Response to Babbling

Other studies have confirmed and built on the “still face” experiment. These studies show that infants with more responsive caretakers begin to talk sooner and build vocabulary faster than children whose caretakers do not respond to their babbling. Moreover, researchers have found that both quantity and quality of interaction matter. There are specific ways that caretakers can respond to their children to encourage language acquisition.

Building on Baby Talk

Talk to Me, Baby: The Research Behind Language Development

Baby talk, also referred to as “parentese” or “child-directed speech,” consists of sing-song speech at a higher pitch, with elongated syllables and greater variation in tone. Many people, especially women, seem to slip into baby talk naturally when around infants. And although others find its simplified language and high pitch irritating, those same qualities serve an important function for baby’s language development. The high pitch and varied intonation capture the child’s attention, while the elongated syllables help the child begin to recognize and imitate speech patterns.

A recent study by researchers at McGill University found that at the babbling stage, infants generally prefer to listen to each other and engage in sound play with their peers. When caretakers imitate infants’ own babbling through baby talk, they similarly engage their children and encourage this productive play.

But there is good news for those who aren’t fond of baby talk: Research has also found that it’s important for babies to be exposed to a range of language styles, including natural adult language. Any positive interaction with a child, whether in baby talk or a normal voice, will contribute to language development.

Taking Turns Talking

As noted earlier, babbling is a form of exploratory play, not a means of communication. However, experts suggest treating babbling as a conversation in which the caregiver follows the child’s lead and takes turns producing sounds. Researchers have found that maternal interactions that follow a child’s lead, rather than redirect it, are associated with more rapid vocabulary development. Taking turns not only helps encourage further babbling — and thus language development — but also begins to model language and communication patterns.

Storytime Babble

Because infants are too young to focus on books, storytimes for them can focus instead on modeling ways that caregivers can respond to and interact with their babbling babies.

  • Greeting infants. Use arrival time as an opportunity to model child-directed speech by greeting the children and having a playful “conversation” with them.
  • Responding and taking turns. When babies vocalize during storytime, stop to acknowledge them and positively reinforce their speech. While sharing stories, rhymes or songs, pause frequently to allow the babies to have a turn to speak.
  • Playing peek-a-boo. This simple game is a great way to introduce turn taking. Incorporate toys, scarves or variations on the game.
  • Practicing container play or babble bags. Have bags or containers filled with infant-appropriate objects. Encourage caregivers to explore the items with the infant, allowing the child to take the lead in selecting the items. The caregiver can then talk about the item with the child.
  • Using mirrors. Infants have a natural interest in their own images. Adding mirrors to interactions can increase the child’s focus.
  • Singing simple songs. Leave space at the end of each line for babies to respond with coos or babbling.
  • Allowing time for free play among the infants. As the McGill study showed, babies enjoy hearing each other and engaging in sound play with their peers. Letting them “talk” to each other is a fun way to encourage speech practice.

The most important strategy — for storytimes and at home — is to keep babbling fun. The more the child enjoys babbling, the more he or she will do it. And who doesn’t enjoy the smiles and sweet sounds babies make as they discover the world around them?




Lisa Bintrim

Lisa Bintrim

Lisa Bintrim, Ph.D., is the former editor of LibrarySparks magazine, UpstartBooks and The Very Ready Reading Program. In this role, she focused on identifying and sharing innovative, engaging programs and resources for school and public libraries.