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Going beyond goo goo

What is baby talk?

It's time to confess. I'm a speech-language pathologist who talks "baby talk" to babies. And not only do I enjoy doing so, I maintain that it's good for them.

Baby talk refers to standard vocabulary words that have been modified by grownups to make them easier for Baby to say. They contain easier sounds, shorter syllables and lots of repetition. For example, the baby talk word for stomach is "tum-tum," for good night, "nightie-night," for urinate, "pee-pee" and so on.

In addition to using different words with babies, it's natural for adults to exaggerate pitch, slow the pace, and simplify sentence structure. When a baby enters the room, note how your pitch gets higher and you begin talking silly. This is an instinctive way of communicating with babies, and it makes learning to talk fun for grownups and babies alike.

Baby talk is a variation of adult language, invented by adults and passed on to each generation of babies; its sole purpose being to teach children to talk.

The science of baby talk

Peter Farb, a linguist and anthropologist, carried out a fascinating study about baby talk. He researched the vocabulary of six very different languages — English and Spanish, two Asian languages, Comanche, and the language of a non-literate community in Siberia.

He discovered that every one of these languages had a baby talk vocabulary. While the actual baby talk words differed, of course, from culture to culture, the themes were amazingly similar.

In all languages studied, the baby-talk words referred to eating, sleeping, toileting, good and bad behavior, animal names and terms for close relatives. These are the types of words that are most important in the life of every baby.

My own experience

When my daughter, Isabel, was just beginning to talk, there were many things she wanted to say but couldn't, because the words she needed contained consonant sounds that were too difficult.

For example, at 18 months, one of her favorite treats was popcorn, but she couldn't yet produce the "kuh" sound. Remembering that one of the rules of creating a baby talk word is to simplify, I began to call popcorn "pop-pop." She loved this new word that she could pronounce, and the power it gave her to get what she wanted.

Often Isabel would take the lead in inventing a baby-talk word. As she turned two, she referred to our pet cat "Smokey" as "Mo." A few months later, she began to call him "Mokey" and then finally "Smokey" as she matured and was able to pronounce more difficult sounds. Baby talk seemed to help her progress naturally from one speech stage to the next.

There are many benefits to the time-honored tradition of speaking baby-talk to children. Babies get practice with simple sounds and short syllables as well as lots of opportunity for repetition. Don't miss out on using these special words with your baby.

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