Hi, you! I see you doing the hard work of prioritizing tuning into your baby. With all the time you spend down on the floor with her gazing at her tiny lips and toes, you’ve probably cherished some of her tiny sounds, too. These tiny sounds turn into big babbles (and eventually, yes, demands for bananas or croissants).
That’s why I’ve dedicated this Tuesday Tune-In to taking a closer look at how babies learn to speak and what we can do to encourage it even more.
The short version? Add more music to your speech.
Now let’s figure out how to do that.
Breaking down language
Basically language is culturally agreed-upon sounds that symbolize concepts. An intricate part of these sounds is the syncopation and melody of them.
For instance: Think about how you say the word “computer.” We instinctively use this word all the time but we don’t think about all the musical elements but go into it. We put stress on the second syllable of the word. This creates a kind of melody. We start with a low note; we go up to a higher note; and we end on a note that is lower than the first. We also syncopate this word. Meaning we hold slightly longer on the middle syllable.
With our babies, we are even more musical with our speech.
It’s called parentese, baby.
Or motherese, depending on who you talk to. What is it? It’s how caregivers across cultures speak to their babies in a certain sing-songy speech that is reserved for their baby.
Don’t think you do it? Think again.
Parentese is a reality – even if we promised ourselves we would never use that high-pitched voice before we had kids, we still do it. That’s because when we use higher pitches in speech to our baby they become more alert and engaged. In fact, we often do it in the shape of a bell curve. We start lower go up higher and come back down. Think about how you might say “Hi” to your baby. It probably isn’t a deadpan “Hi.” It probably follows the shape mentioned above: “hiiiIIIiiii.”
Do you greet your partner when they come in the door like that? Hell no. But you do when you see your baby after not seeing her for a while.
Similarly, when we soothe our babies we are also sing-songy. Our voice tends to fall. It starts higher and goes slower. Think of how you say, “It’s okay.” Now think of that voice you use when you are pissed at your kid. That’s when we use a flat tone. Kind of robot like. As if to say, “I mean business kid.”
Words with melody are easier to learn
Speaking in our sing-songy way doesn’t only helps our babies be more engaged. It also helps our babies learn words faster than they might if we spoke to them the way we speak with other adults.
Case in point: My daughter’s first word was “Diaper.” That’s because whenever I said it I always started low and ended on a higher note. Think of the “die” in a low voice, and the “per” in almost a squeaky voice. I didn’t do it intentionally. It just came out that way every time I said “Should we go find your diaper?” or “Do we need to change your diaper?” it probably had a lot to do with the fact that I usually said it in the form of a question.
When she first said the word, she didn’t say it with the correct consonants. She first said it with the correct melody. In fact she even said, “ba ba?” I knew she was saying diaper because she used the same tones even if she didn’t use the same consonants.
My son’s first word was “Uh oh.” Same thing there. We tend to sing “Uh oh.” We start on a higher note and end on a lower note. It’s part of our language to sing that word.
Our babies, first and foremost, pick up on the musicality of language, according to a 2012 psychology report. There are a few reasons for this. First, it repeats in the the same way every time. Because we say “Uh oh” in the same melody each time, our babies can latch onto it and practice it. Second: Our babies are tuned in to dynamics. They are looking for contrast in melody and become more alert when we are more musical with our speech.
So what can we do to help our babies along with language acquisition? A few things:
How to encourage language acquisition
- Keep doing what you’re doing. And talking how you’re talking.
You are already speaking to your baby in a sing songy way without even realizing it. Now that you are aware of it, you can accentuate that even more. You can also feel proud that you are tuned in to what your baby needs from you.
- Reduce some of your sentences to one-or two-word sentences.
This will help your baby pick up on the melody of the words without complicating it with the whole sentence. For instance: You can say: “Eat food?” or just “Food?” when you are about to give your baby food or “Stroller” when you are about to put them into the stroller.
- Use the same melody for certain words.
For many words, you are already doing this. Notice those. For some words you might be changing the melody of each time, see if you can decide on one melody and stick with it for a while. For instance, with the word “Bottle”.
This week, notice how your baby is tuned into music even when we think that there isn’t music involved. Like little musicians, their ears are picking up on subtle shifts in our melody.
See? You might already be singing much more than you think.
Tell me: Was your baby’s first word something you said a certain way? If your baby doesn’t talk yet, what word do you think might be their first based on how you say it? Comment below and let’s see what tops “Uh oh” and “Diaper”!
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