How Motherese Teaches Babies Language

The tests show that babies' preferences have nothing to do with the actual words mothers use. Babies choose motherese (or "parentese" or "caretakerese") even when the speaker is talking in a foreign language so infants can't understand the words, or when the words have been filtered out using computer techniques and only the pitch of the voice remains. Apparently they choose motherese not just because it's how their mother talks but because they like the way it sounds. Motherese is a sort of comfort language; it's like aural macaroni and cheese. Even grown-ups like it. Pat's graduate students discovered that listening to the lab tapes of motherese in a foreign language was a wonderful therapy for end-of-term stress. The mother's voice is an acoustic hook for the babies. It captures babies' attention and focuses it on the person who is talking to them.

The elaborate techniques of computer voice analysis reveal exactly what it is we do when we talk to an infant. The pitch of our voice rises dramatically, sometimes by more than an octave; our intonation becomes very melodic and singsongy; and our speech slows down and has exaggerated, lengthened vowels.

Motherese is a universal language. People across all cul:ures do it when they talk to their infants, even though they usually aren't aware of doing it at all. When mothers listen to recordings of themselves producing motherese, the reaction is: That can't be me. I sound really stupid. Should I be doing that? But they do it intuitively, without conscious awareness.

Why do we do it? Do we produce motherese simply to get the babies' attention? (It certainly does that.) Do we do it just to convey affection and comfort? Or does motherese have a more focused purpose? It turns out that motherese is more than just a sweet siren song we use to draw our babies to us. Motherese seems to actually help babies solve the Language problem.

Motherese sentences are shorter and simpler than sentences directed at adults. Moreover, grown-ups speaking to babies often repeat the same thing over and over with slight variations. ("You are a pretty girl, aren't you? Aren't you a pretty girl? Pretty, pretty girl.") These characteristics of motherese may help children to figure out the words and grammar of their language.

But the clearest evidence that motherese helps babies learn comes from studies of the sounds of motherese. Recent studies show that the well-formed, elongated consonants and vowels of motherese are particularly clear examples of speech sounds. Mothers and other caregivers are teachers as well as lovers. Completely unconsciously they produce sounds more clearly and pronounce them more accurately when they talk to babies than when they talk to other adults. When mothers say the word bead to an adult, it's produced in a fraction of a second and it's a bit sloppy. But when mothers say that same word to their infants, it becomes beeeeeed, a well-produced, clearly articulated word. This makes it easier for infants to map the sounds we use in language.


With its characteristic slow, repetitive enunciation of the words in culture's language, Motherese seems like an instinctual way a mother habituates their child to the sound categorizations of their language. This begs the question: if the Motherese imitates the sounds of another language, would that stave off the child's failure to distinguish foreign sounds later on?

Folksonomies: babies development language

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/family and parenting/children (0.384671)
/society/sex (0.350037)

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Motherese:Person (0.791733 (positive:0.161839)), Pat:Person (0.198091 (positive:0.235628))

Language (0.937947): dbpedia | freebase | opencyc
Consciousness (0.880138): dbpedia | freebase | opencyc
Word (0.821089): dbpedia | freebase
Infancy (0.796425): dbpedia
Infant (0.787622): dbpedia | freebase | opencyc
Clear (0.719214): dbpedia
Clearing (0.696532): dbpedia
Talk radio (0.687406): dbpedia | freebase | yago

 The Scientist in the Crib: What Early Learning Tells Us About the Mind
Books, Brochures, and Chapters>Book:  Gopnik , Meltzoff , Kuhl (2001-01-01), The Scientist in the Crib: What Early Learning Tells Us About the Mind, Harper Paperbacks, Retrieved on 2011-07-06
Folksonomies: education parenting pregnancy babies children infancy


19 JUL 2011

 The Importance of Motherese

The Importance of "Motherese" > Additional Support/Evidence > How Motherese Teaches Babies Language
The slow, repetitive, simplistic intonations of motherese crosses cultures and genders and helps babies to learn the sounds of their culture's language so they may pluck the individual words out of the unbroken strings of sounds that comprise sentences.