Here's How to Master Parentese and Leave Baby Talk Behind

Parentese is the secret code you can use to help your baby crack language right open.

Published May 8, 2023
Mother and toddler looking out of home window

For generations, parents goo-goo and gaa-gaa'ed through baby's first year. Yet, modern research shows that baby talk can set aside in favor of parentese, or child-direct speech. Parentese is a verbal style of teaching kids language that focuses on modulating pitch, vowels, and cadence. Learn more about the new parenting standard and how you can get started practicing it today.

What Is Parentese and How Is It Different From Baby Talk?

Parentese, or child-direct speech - as most professionals like to call it - is a verbal technique employed when speaking your native language to help developing infants learn language at an earlier and faster pace. Unlike baby talk, peer-reviewed research proves that parentese provides the most consistent results for language learning.

Specifically, the technique relies on two fundamental aspects: exaggeration of vowels and a sing-songy pitch. So, when speaking parentese, you're still using all of the words you normally would, but overemphasizing the vowels in each word and modulating the pitch up and down instead of saying everything in a flat tone.

How Do You Speak Parentese?

Mother and baby boy trying to understand each other

You might think parentese looks like baby babbling to your kiddos about how yummy something is, but it's actually not that much different than how we normally talk. The three differences you should focus on are:

  • Speaking in a sing-song melodic voice
  • Extending/over-exaggerating your vowels in words
  • Speaking in a high-pitched tone

When you combine all of these characteristics, you'll start speaking a language that's auditorily interesting and keep your infant's attention for longer than you do with baby babble.

When Should You Start Using It?

According to the Scientific American, kids enter a special period after six months where they're primed to start learning language. In their comprehensive article, they reveal that "the time when a youngster's brain is most open to learning the sounds of a native tongue begins at six months for vowels and nine months for consonants."

So, you've got six months after your baby's born to practice your parentese. Once they hit that six month mark, make it a daily habit of speaking to them using the verbal technique.

7 Tips to Help You Master Parentese

There are so many things to memorize and practice when you're taking care of a baby for the first time. Don't stress about parentese being one of them. You can get a quick grip on the style by following these tips:

Get Everyone Speaking Parentese

It's helpful to have a united front when starting any kind of developmental technique with your kids. Everyone who's caring for your child or spends significant time with them can learn how to speak parentese. The more exposure little ones get to it every day, the faster they'll start to develop their language skills.

Face Your Baby When Talking to Them

Half of parentese's usefulness is how the modifications to 'regular' speech patterns help babies decode what sounds correlate to what meanings. Part of understanding sound involves looking at the place it comes from. So, your parentese will be more effective if you're facing your baby and making sure they're paying attention to you when you're talking to them. See if their eyes are tracking your mouth and if they're responding to any of the words you use.

Talk at a Slow, Measured Speed

You'd be surprised at how fast humans naturally talk when they've got a good grip on a language. But your baby can't pick out the syllables and meaning in a sentence when it's raced past their ears. So, practice speaking at a slower, measured speed when talking to them.

Don't Dumb Down Your Words

For a few decades, there was a trend of teaching children non-words (usually created as a combination of many small words) as replacements to more complex words or phrases. For example, 'astronaut' might turn into 'space man.' If you're trying to teach your child how to discern the phonemes in a word, they need to hear the full word.

Be as Specific as Possible

Kids can't learn complex words if you don't introduce them first. So, be specific with your vocabulary. Every car doesn't have to just be 'car.' Some are trucks and others 18-wheelers or lorries, some sedans and others crossovers. Similarly, every dog isn't just a dog. They're a German Shepherd, a Pomeranian, a Great Pyrenees, and so on.

The more words you can incorporate into parentese, the broader phoneme bank you're building for your child. And they'll be able to pull from that bank to use those words at a very young age.

Refer to Yourself and Others to Give Context

Father Helping Baby Eat Lunch

Another important way to use parentese is to guide your child through it by giving them context. When referring to something you did, point to yourself, say your role (mom/dad/aunt etc.) and then explain what you did or are doing. This helps them connect your words with real meaning.

Try Back and Forth Conversation

Don't speak parentese in a vacuum to your infants. Instead, try to create a positive language feedback loop by encouraging your babies to hold a conversation with you. Whether they're just at the babbling stage or are starting to compose concrete sentences, pause after you talk to your kids and wait for their response. Also, emulate conversations with others in your household.

By doing so, one 2020 study concludes that "infants, in turn, adjust their vocalizations in response to parental vocalizations." In effect, you're teaching them how to use language, not just spouting out words.

Never Fear - Parentese Isn't Right for Every Child

Although parentese is touted as a top option for verbally introducing language to your infants, it's not going to work for every kid. For example, some children with autism don't develop language in the same way that non-autistic children do. So, eye-contact and engagement heavy parentese isn't going to be right for them.

Similarly, since it doesn't incorporate any non-verbal communication, it's not great for hard of hearing or deaf children. The list of special situations can go on and on, so if you're trying out parentese and aren't seeing any improvement, don't fret. It might not be the right learning style for your little one.

Parentese: Better Than Baby Talk

As a parent or caregiver, you just want to give your kids the best fighting chance they have at conquering the world. One way you can do so is by helping them navigate language as early as possible, and parentese is one of the best ways we know of right now to do that.

Here's How to Master Parentese and Leave Baby Talk Behind