What's the point of baby talk

Press release: Bilingual babies prefer “Baby Talk” in their mother tongue

No. 41 - 23.03.2021

International research team with the participation of the University of Göttingen investigates the way of speaking

(pug) A study of several hundred babies on four continents shows that all babies respond more to the way they talk to the child - “baby talk” - than to the way they talk to an adult. In fact, babies prefer baby talk in any language, but especially when spoken in a language they hear at home. An international research team, in which the University of Göttingen is also involved, has also found that babies can already perceive differences in the way they speak at the age of six months. The results are in the journal Advances in Methods and Practices in Psychological Science published.

Adults from many cultures instinctively use a form of infantile baby language that is typically characterized by a more exaggerated way of speaking: a varied pattern of intonation, a slower pace of speech with shorter, simpler words and sentences. The study, which involved laboratories in Canada, the United States, Europe, Australia, and Singapore, tested 333 bilingual and 385 monolingual babies. Although 17 different laboratories recruited and tested their own participants, the team made sure there were certain similarities: first, the bilingual babies shared one of their two languages ​​with the monolingual babies; second, the test procedures were the same in all laboratories.

For the study, the babies were divided into groups of six- to nine-month-olds and 12 to 15-month-olds. Each baby was played short, pre-recorded tapes on which women spoke English to their own babies, either in baby language or in adult-friendly language. The researchers measured the amount of time each baby listened carefully while these recordings were played.

The global nature of the study ensured that many different language combinations could be examined and that not all babies came from households where English was spoken. Nonetheless, all children, regardless of language, preferred baby language in English as opposed to adult language in English. Those children who came from a home where English was spoken even paid more attention to addressing children in English.

"We were able to compare babies with a bilingual background to babies with a monolingual background, and what seemed to matter most was the correspondence between the language they heard in their everyday environment and the language we played them in the study," says the study's lead author, Dr. Krista Byers-Heinlein, from Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. “The more familiar they were with the language, the more they liked the child-friendly language. And a baby who hears English 75 percent of the time in their home showed a greater preference than a baby who hears English 25 percent of the time. "

"We have shown that the way you speak has a strong influence on the children's attention span," says Prof. Dr. Nivedita Mani from the University of Göttingen. “This encourages children to listen to childish language for longer, especially in a language they are familiar with. This is important because children learn better when they pay more attention to a particular source. So this preference for baby language has the potential to have a major impact on their learning. "

Original publication: Byers-Heinlein, K. et al. A multi-lab study of bilingual infants: Exploring the preference for infant directed speech. Advances in Methods and Practices in Psychological Science (2021). DoI: 10.1177 / 2515245920974622.


Prof. Dr. Nivedita Mani

Georg-August-University Goettingen

Psychology of language

Goßlerstrasse 14, 37073 Göttingen

Telephone: 0551 39 10889

Email: [email protected]