Skip To Content
Cambridge University Science Magazine
Why is it that whenever we see a baby, our voices morph into a strange, overly exaggerated, almost comical version of our regular voices? It seems near impossible to speak to an infant as we would to anyone else. Globally, speech and language varies in a wonderfully diverse way, but in spite of this, communication has one thing in common — the way we speak to children. Recognised and documented since the 1960s, this ‘parentese’, or child-directed speech (CDS), is characterised by higher and broader pitch variations, coupled with a slower tempo and vowel exaggeration. It may be a common sight, but we rarely consider how speaking this way affects children’s development in their early years. In a recent study undertaken at the University of Washington, researchers have done just that. Families with children aged six to fourteen months old were randomly assigned to two groups where parents’ interactions with their children were monitored; however, only one group was actively coached to increase levels of CDS. Amongst other benefits, the children whose parents were coached were seen to have an average vocabulary almost double that of the control group. With this intriguing discovery in mind, we can rest assured that whenever we talk to infants in this way, however amusing it may look, we are giving them a head start in life.

By Jonathan Lam.