Bilingual babies prefer baby talk, particularly in one of their native languages

Wednesday, 24 March 2021

Dr Nayeli Gonzalez-Gomez with infant

Babies prefer baby talk in any language, but particularly when it’s in a language they’re hearing at home.

A unique study of hundreds of babies involving 17 labs on four continents showed that all babies respond more to infant-directed speech – baby talk –than they do to adult-directed speech. The study found that babies as young as six months can pick up on differences in language around them.


Senior lecturer in psychology at Oxford Brookes University, Dr Nayeli Gonzalez-Gomez, was involved in the research and says baby talk is a valuable part of language development: “You have probably noticed that parents and other people tend to speak to babies in a different way to adults. This infant-directed speech or baby talk sounds a little musical and exaggerated. Usually, baby talk uses a smaller range of vocabulary, the tone of voice may be higher and softer, it may be slower and more repetitive than normal adult language. 


Baby talk comes naturally to parents and caregivers, and is helpful for the baby, so parents should definitely follow their instincts and use baby talk to help their baby's language development.

Dr Nayeli Gonzalez-Gomez

“We know that babies prefer to listen to baby talk than to conversations between adults. Research has also shown that baby talk makes language learning easier for them. 


“Baby talk comes naturally to parents and caregivers, and is helpful for the baby, so parents should definitely follow their instincts and use baby talk to help their baby's language development.”


Krista Byers-Heinlein, associate professor of psychology at Concordia University in the USA, said: “We were able to compare babies from bilingual backgrounds to babies from monolingual backgrounds, and what seemed to matter the most was the match between the language they heard in their everyday environment and the language we were playing to them in the study.”

Looking is listening


The study is one of the first papers published by the “ManyBabies” Consortium, a five-year, all-volunteer collaboration between researchers across the globe. This study, involving labs in Canada, the United States, Europe, Australia and Singapore, tested 333 bilingual and 385 monolingual children aged between six and 15 months. 


While each lab recruited and tested their participants individually, there were certain similarities across all of them. First, the bilingual babies shared at least one of their two languages with the monolingual babies; second, testing procedures were held constant within each lab. Babies were separated into two groups - six- to nine-month-olds and 12- to 15-month-olds. 


Each baby was played short, pre-recorded tapes of English-speaking mothers using infant-directed and adult-directed speech. The researchers then measured each baby’s looking time while those recordings were playing; with looking indicating that the babies were actively listening.


Not all of the babies were from homes in which English was spoken. The global nature of the study ensured many different language combinations were represented. Nevertheless, all children, regardless of language, preferred infant-directed English to adult-directed English. Those children who did come from homes in which English was spoken paid even more attention to the infant-directed speech.


“The more familiar they were with the language, the more they liked that infant-directed speech,” says Byers-Heinlein. “And a baby who is hearing English 75 percent of the time in their home would show a greater preference than a baby who is hearing English 25 percent of the time.”


The study was published in the journal Advances in Methods and Practices in Psychological Science.