'Parentese' is a technical term used to describe the simple form of language that parents around the world use when they talk to their babies and little children. Parents speaking parentese use simple words and grammar and a sing-song pitch, talking at a slower pace, with elongated vowel sounds and lots of repetition to attract a baby's attention.
Despite what some may think, parentese is not a deficient or corrupted form of language. Parentese is grammatically correct, and uses real words and phrases. If we take an example like ‘Who’s my beautiful baby? It’s you. It’s you. You’re my beautiful baby!’ we can see that these phrases are short and repetitive, but are all grammatically correct. The vocabularly of parentese is standard adult vocabulary, too.
Parentese supports language learning
Initially known as 'motherese', parentese was first identified as a subject of research in the 1960s. Since then, studies have shown that speaking parentese to babies supports their early language development and improves long-term language skills (Ramirez, Naja Ferjan, Lytle, Sarah Roseberry and Kuhl, Patricia K., Parent coaching increases conversational turns and advances infant language. PNAS February 18, 2020 117(7) 3484-3491). It seems the simpler linguistic structure and exaggerated sounds of parentese make language learning easier, and are precisely what developing brains need.
Using parentese has another wonderful benefit that we see at work in our Parent-Child Mother Goose groups. For parentese clearly supports the loving attachment between adult and child. The sing-song voice of parentese grabs the attention of an infant, who is soon responding with smiling and cooing, and eventually by babbling whole strings of sounds in interactive, loving ‘conversations’ with their parent.
May not come naturally
Sadly, however, not all parents find they can use parentese naturally. New parents who are feeling vulnerable may not remember to speak this way with their child, or indeed they may not even know how to do it. Some parents have never heard parentese themselves as a little child.
This is where chanting rhymes and singing songs to babies and little children is so brilliant. When we chant and sing to babies and little children, our voices quite naturally take on all the qualities of parentese. We can’t help but use a sing-song voice. Our voices naturally take on a higher pitch, while the rhymes compel us to exaggerate sounds. We readily slow down our rate of utterance, and the rhymes and songs themselves provide lots of repetition of words and phrases.
Ready transition to parentese via singing and chanting
As they sing and chant, even parents who are not initially comfortable using parentese begin to take time to cuddle their babies gently, gazing into their eyes. Their babies smile at them, calm more easily, and begin to respond with little cooing sounds. Parents’ confidence grows in a positive, self-reinforcing cycle that supports parent-child attachment and helps language, listening and speech develop.
Importantly for vulnerable parents, there’s no pressure to learn anything new. Parents can use rhymes or songs they already know. For English-speaking parents, for example, these may be songs and rhymes like Twinkle, twinkle little star, Round and round the garden like a teddy bear or This little piggie went to market. When they see the beautiful responses they are getting from their babies, it will be that much easier to feel that they themselves are competent and loving parents.
Easier to feel a loving, competent parent
In all of this, it's important to remember that it is not the song or rhyme as such that supports attachment and language development, but rather the combination of loving interaction between parent and child with the singing and chanting. Recorded music is a wonderful and enjoyable resource for both adults and children, but for the purpose we are describing here, recorded music can never be an adequate substitute for the parent's own voice. Babies and young children don’t know and don't care if their parents sing 'out of tune'. To them, their parents’ loving and gentle voices as they sing and chant rhymes are the best voices in the world.
— by Marilyn Dann, P-CMG Australia accredited trainer