By avoiding baby talk, dads may help kids acquire language

From the Acoustical Society of America

child-research-cropSPOKANE, Wash. – In an era of shifting parental roles and increased involvement, researchers from Washington State University are investigating whether fathers modify their speech in the same way as mothers when talking to their children. This is the first study that has examined fathers’ verbal interactions with their children in a real-world setting using automatic data processing.

Initial experimental results suggest that when fathers interact with their children, they engage less in baby talk, also called “motherese.” The research team is presenting its work at the Acoustical Society of America conference this week in Pittsburgh.

The WSU Spokane speech and hearing sciences team outfitted preschoolers and their parents with recording devices to monitor social interactions over the course of a normal day. The work confirmed previous studies, which showed that mothers used higher pitch and varied their pitch more when interacting with their children than with adults.

A small child participates in acoustics research for WSU Spokane. (Photo courtesy of WSU Spokane Speech & Language Lab)

The fathers, on the other hand, talked to their children using intonation patterns more like those used when they talked to other adults.

Motherese is believed to be a bonding tool because it is particularly attractive to babies and young children, with its attention-catching cadence and exaggerated vocal features. But the fathers’ approach likely bestows different benefits.

“We think that maybe fathers are doing things that are conducive to their children’s learning but in a different way,” said Mark VanDam, a professor in the WSU Department of Speech & Hearing Sciences who headed the study. “The parents are complementary to their children’s language learning.”

The data support what VanDam refers to as the bridge hypothesis – that fathers, by speaking to their children more like adults, might act as a link to the outside world by helping them deal with unfamiliar speech.

Furthermore, the fathers’ less frequent use of classic baby talk doesn’t mean they aren’t modifying their speech in other ways – by using different vocabulary, for instance, or changing the volume or duration of their speech. VanDam believes the age and sex of the child might also influence a father’s interactions.

The pilot study looked only at families with a mother and father who both lived full-time with the child, so the researchers don’t know how the results might differ in single-parent families or those headed by same-sex couples. The study is one part of a larger initiative at WSU to examine how fathers support their children’s language development from infancy through early childhood.

Ultimately, VanDam and his colleagues are interested in addressing these same questions in families with children with hearing loss in order to understand how hearing loss impacts speech production and learning.