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UW study: Parentese most effective method for teaching toddlers language

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The manner in which infants and toddlers learn to speak is of ongoing interest for researchers and parents alike, and parentese may be the most effective teaching tool. Dr. Naja Ferjan Ramirez is a linguistics and cognitive science professor at the University of Washington, who’s written a study on how parents talk to their children.

So, what exactly is parentese?

“Parentese is a special speaking style that adults use when they talk to their infants and toddlers. It’s observed across many languages, and it’s much more than just a pleasant sounding speech. It sometimes gets confused with baby talk — baby talk is a combination of silly sounds and words that sometimes even uses incorrect grammar. So things like, ‘Oh, your shoes woosies on your cutesy feet’ — that would be baby talk,” she said.

“Parantese uses correct grammar and real words, but it does have this higher pitch, a slower tempo, exaggerated intonation and acoustically exaggerated vowels.”

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According to Dr. Ramirez, this type of speech specifically allows babies to better understand the individual words and gradually gain an understanding of language.

“It has a slower tempo, so it helps a baby find where the boundaries between the words are because typically in fast speech words run into one another … and that might be one of the reasons why it helps them learn words. The higher pitch captures their attention, and then the exaggerated vowels help children figure out what the vowels of their language are,” she said.

While parentese in various forms is something that often comes naturally to parents or something they use inadvertently, what the study helps to show is the science behind why it works and how effective it can be in teaching language to kids.

“We have known for quite a while that the kids who hear more parentese have better language outcomes later on. What we didn’t know up until this point is whether parental use of parentese is something that’s malleable,” she said. “Or, in other words, if we tell parents that parentese is a good thing, can they enhance how much they use it and in what situations they use it?”

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“In this study, we show that this is possible and that those parents who enhance their parentese use the most have babies with the best language outcomes,” she added. “… Many parents had no idea that they use it themselves until we played back their recordings. … So the purpose was to really draw their attention to the benefits of parentese and to show them that they do actually use it, and then tell them to start using more of it.”

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