In this episode, we dive into infant-directed speech, the distinct way adults talk to babies, commonly known as baby talk. Our guest, Dr. Gordon Ramsay, tells us the unique ingredients of infant-directed speech and the amazing outcomes it has for your baby’s social and language development.

Today’s Guest:

Dr. Gordon Ramsay is the director of the Spoken Communication Laboratory at Marcus Autism Center within Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, and he is also the assistant professor in Pediatrics at the Emory University School of Medicine. Gordon completed his doctorate in electronics and electrical engineering at the University of Southampton in England, and received a master’s in speech and language processing from Cambridge University after undergraduate studies in engineering. As part of the research team, he is a principal investigator and director of data analysis and management for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Autism Center of Excellence grant, exploring the development of new vocal biomarkers for autism in the first year of life, as well as new mathematical techniques and technologies for measuring infant development. His research helps show how early emerging mechanisms of social engagement are potentially derailed in autism in the first year of life and explains how this impacts the development of speech and language. This will eventually lead to evidence-based technologies for early detection and intervention to address the social communication deficit in autism.

More Resources:

Transcription for Episode 7:

Amy

Welcome to Growing Up Brainy, your portal into what’s happening inside your baby’s brainy. We interview the experts, demystify the science and help you nurture your child towards a bright, open future.

 

Hi there. I’m your host, Amy Husted, startup addict, boy mom of two, and chief commercial officer here at Smalltalk. On today’s episode. I have the pleasure of talking with Dr Gordon Ramsay, director of the Spoken Communication Laboratory at Marcus Autism Center with Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and assistant professor in Pediatrics at the Emory University School of Medicine. So, Gordon, before we get started, I would love if you shared a little bit about your background and your focus of your studies.

 

Gordon

Yeah. So I’m a speech scientist and electronic engineer. And in my lab, we’re interested in everything to do with early vocal development in babies from birth to three years of age. And we’re specifically interested in looking at babies at risk of autism and other than neurodevelopmental disorders. But we’re also interested in following how those early experiences with speech and language really influenced later developmental trajectories all the way through adulthood.

 

Amy

That’s great. And we are so happy to have you here and learn from your experiences and your studies. So on today’s episode, in particular, we’re going to talk about how we talk to babies. So I’m sure it comes as no surprise to parents out there, but we’ve probably noticed that we speak differently to babies and children than we do adults. And there’s actually a scientific term for this, and it is called infant-directed speech. And Gordon is an expert on this topic. And because of that, Gordon, I would love if you would define this term for us. What exactly do you mean when we say infant-directed speech?

 

Gordon

Sure. So infant-directed speech is the special vocal register that adults employ when they talk to infants. And usually that means children in the first year of life before they learn to talk. And sometimes we distinguish it from child-directed speech, which is what you really use with older children. So basically, it’s everything we do when we’re talking to babies, really, before they learn to talk. And that special style of interaction that we adopt naturally when we’re talking to young kids.

 

Amy

So what are the ingredients of infant-directed speech? What makes it different from how we talk to adults?

 

Gordon

The main thing you notice about infant directed speech is the prosody, which really means the patterns of intonation and timing. So adults speak with a higher pitch when they talk to babies, and they also modulate the pitch of their voice more and vowels and consonants get exaggerated, and we tend to speak more slowly and use shorter and simple words and phrases with a lot of repetition. So it’s really a combination of kind of the acoustic structure of the voice that we use when we talk to babies, and also the style language that we employ when we’re talking to them before they even know what speech and language are.

 

Amy

Are there specific ages that we see that change where it goes from that infant directed to child directed to adult directed?

 

Gordon

Yes. So as with all aspects of infant caregiver behavior, there are developmental progressions that happen over time as babies develop and what we tend to talk about in terms of infant directed speech, there’s baby talk, which is the register we employ really over the first six to nine months. And then as babies begin to babble and produce syllables and move on to first words, adults change the structure of their infant directed speech so that it’s more appropriate to what babies are expecting next. And so as you get to the first year of life, the end of the first year of life, you tend to exaggerate the speech sounds you’re making.

 

And then towards the second year of life, once babies reach first words and begin to learn language, that infant directed speech, that high pitched, highly modulated, prosodic register tends to fall away. And by the time you get up to two years of age, when your pitch range is really back within the adult range, and it’s no longer really sounding like infant directed speech anymore.

 

Amy

That’s super fascinating. So I can see that even in my own life, because I don’t have babies anymore. I have two boys that are nine and eleven, so I’m definitely talking to them as adults now, which is is fun and exciting watching them grow in that way. So I don’t have a little infant, but sometimes I think, like, it might sound silly, but I have a small little puppy. She’s actually two, but I feel like she’s a forever puppy because she’s a small dog. And sometimes I feel like I’m talking to her almost as if she were a baby. So how does that compare? Is that even a thing?

 

Gordon

Yes, definitely. So you have a dog and I have a Python, and we both speak to our pets in something that resembles infant-directed speech, which is quite often referred to as pet-directed speech. And one of the interesting things about pet directed speech is that it mimics things that we use in infant-directed speech for communicating effect and emotion to creatures or the small than ourselves. But the interesting difference in pet directed speech is that we actually don’t exaggerate the language specific or language important elements that we use when we’re talking to infants and children. And so definitely pet directed speech is a thing. We don’t quite know why we engage in it. My Python is stone deaf, and I know that. And yet I still engage in her with pet directed speech in the same way that you engage with your dog. But something about communication of in motion with creatures of those perhaps developmentally younger than we are, or that we perceive to be small in some way and needing attention and care will trigger also the same thing that seems to be responsible for stimulating infant directed speech.

 

Amy

I think that’s super interesting. And it’s funny because I have an older dog, too, and she’s twelve now, and she’s a bigger dog, and she is now deaf just from older age. And I still talk to her as if she can hear me and having that I know that emotional relational connection. Do you have any examples of what you mean by, we don’t change the language elements with a pet, whereas we change the language elements with a child?

 

Gordon

Sure. So there are many things that infant directed speech is there to accomplish in the development of a child. And very early on with baby talk, the main thing that we’re trying to do is to engage with the newborn baby and really attract their attention and communicate emotion to them. And so many of the prosodic properties that we exploit in infant-directed speech and exaggerate are things that we would normally use for expressing emotion in adult- directed speech. So the intonation of the voice, the timing, the rhythm, those kind of things. But also, as kids get older, infant directed speech also tends to exaggerate the properties of speech in individual languages. They’re important for babies to use to learn about language before they really know what language is. And so as babies get older and parents realize that they’re beginning to understand what words are or individual speech Sounds are in their infant-directed speech, they were also, in addition to that affective component, that emotional component that also tend to exaggerate the things that are specific to languages that really are about communicating meaning that are important for learning the contrast between sounds across different languages. And we see that across cultures as well.

 

Amy

That’s fascinating, especially because all of us moms and dads didn’t go to school to learn how to do infant directed speech. It’s just completely natural, and yet it’s consistent. I think that’s fascinating.

 

Gordon

Yes. And it’s remarkable that even if you’ve never encountered the baby before or a pet before or any of the things that tend to trigger this register, we just intuitively seem to switch into it, and we quite often don’t even realize we’re doing it. And I’ve had moms in my studies who told me very early on that they weren’t going to engage in baby talk with their kids because they thought it was stupid and then Lo and Behold, when we recorded them in the home, interacting naturally with their babies over days of the time for months, those moms, just like everybody else, just naturally switched into that infant directed register as soon as they began trying to engage their children. So it’s just something that naturally happens. We don’t know where it came from evolutionarily. We don’t know where it came from in terms of our own personal experience. And so whether it’s something that’s completely just part of our evolutionary background or whether it’s something that we somehow acquire through experience by listening to other people do it in our own childhoods. We just don’t know that yet. And that’s really a fascinating I question whether it’s something that’s so deeply entrenched in our experience of language and early child development that it’s something that we have evolved to do specifically, or whether it’s just something that we tend to accumulate over time and just work out how to do by the time we actually have children ourselves. We don’t really know the full answers to that yet.

 

Amy

Yeah. And I’ve heard the same, you mentioned how some people don’t want to do baby talk with their kids, and they think it’s silly. I’ve heard that from a lot of people. And so kind of digging into that a bit. One I like your point that they actually do it, and they just don’t realize and they don’t want to admit it. But too, I think there’s a differentiation and a little bit of confusion that sometimes people assume that baby talk means incorrect words like pascetti instead of spaghetti like it’s not that you have to change the word to do baby talk. It’s just the way you say it. Right?

 

Gordon

Yes. That’s right. And so there are many things you do when you talk to babies, and it’s important to remember that we mentioned the notion of developmental progressions or the fact that infant directed speech changes over time as babies age. And parents, like, with everything they do with babies, they really change their behavior towards their child to accommodate what they perceive to be the needs of their child. And baby talk in the earliest part of life. Like I say, it really exaggerates prosody and intonation, but the meaning isn’t really important because babies don’t know what speech and language is yet. They’re simply exploring what it feels like to hear speech like sounds from the talking face of their parents. And that’s part of the thing that’s important. So in that early period, it doesn’t matter what you say to babies. And quite often you talk nonsense to babies when you’re exaggerating those intonation contours because, you know that’s not really important. It’s really the intonation, the prosody, the effect you’re communicating, the fact it’s naturally engaging babies in social interaction, that’s really the function of it. Early on. And then later on, as babies begin to learn about speech and language, you naturally change your infant-directed speech to accommodate that and to provide babies with things that are more appropriate models for language input.

 

And quite often, those models that parents provide are highly simplified just to make it easier for babies to listen to those distinctions. And in some languages across cultures, for example, in Japanese, the vocabulary that Japanese parents use when they’re talking to infants is completely different from the same words they would use when talking to an adult. So there’s an entire other vocabulary that’s appropriate for young children that Japanese moms use. It’s not incorrect. It’s actually just a different way of introducing babies to language. So I don’t think you can really talk about incorrect or correct language as far as babies are concerned. Of course, that’s an adult-directed judgment or making when you listen to that, the main thing to think about is, what is the experience of the baby? What is the function of that infant directed speech for the baby baby and vocular? And how is it really scaffolding social interaction and speech and language development between the two of them?

 

Amy

I love everything about that, and especially the idea that it doesn’t matter necessarily what you’re saying. Moms have so much they’re dealing with in those first couple months when baby is born. So if that means that you can swaddle them up with you and be doing some household chores while talking to them, you could be talking to them about folding laundry and they don’t care. The context doesn’t matter. Well, we are going to take a quick minute and we will be right back.

 

The Growing Up Brainy podcast is brought to you by smallTalk. Smalltalk allows your baby to engage with foreign language through play. This interactive language exposure during infancy results in what we like to call brain magic, wiring your little one’s brain with the building blocks of a new language and getting them a different and better brainy for a lifetime.

 

So all of this is very intriguing. It’s always fun to, part of our purpose here is to nerd out a bit of the science behind what’s happening in our little baby babies’ lives. But why does it matter? Why does it matter if we are using infant directed speech with our babies? And could you talk a little bit deeper about what it does for them developmentally?

 

Gordon

So parents use infant directed speech early in life because it’s naturally attractive to babies. It engages their attention. Most importantly, it encourages social interaction. But it’s also really important for learning about language. And so those are really the two functions in infant-directed speech social engagement and speech and language learning. And it’s important to think about where it actually comes from. So why do we use these exaggerated intonation contours? Why do we hyper articulate with our mouths later on when babies are learning first words? So babies can’t see properly when they’re born, but they can hear voices even before birth, when they’re still in the womb. And we know from a whole series of fascinating experiments that by the third semester, babies begin to respond more to speech than to other sounds. They respond more to mom’s voice versus other people’s voices. And specifically, they respond to the intonation of mom’s voice because that’s the main thing that they can hear in the womb through the abdominal wall. Everything else is kind of muffled. So when babies emerge into the world, the world is full of blobs because they can’t see properly, it’s full of talking blobs. And because they know what the intonation of mom’s voice Sounds like, they can seek out the special talking blob called mom who is going to take care of them and teach them about speech and language later on. So the intonational properties, really, we think, come from the fact that that’s really what the infant is experiencing in the womb before they’re born. And they can use that to Orient towards talking faces and caregivers from the moment they emerge into the world. So one function of infant directive speeches, really, it’s really important in helping babies turn towards caregivers. And talking faces and talking faces, of course, are the source of speech and language.

 

The babies when they’re born, they don’t know what speech is yet. And so the other function of infant-directed speech really lies in teaching babies about language before they actually have language. And so when caregivers use infant-directed speech, one of the things they do is they use intonation to highlight words and phrase boundaries. And this is something called prosodic bootstrapping, where early on in life, the prosody of the voice, the fact you raise the pitch on some words and lower it on others. In that period, the early period, the prosody of the voice becomes a proxy for syntax. And that can be used to teach babies about the different elements of speech and language, really, before they have any way of knowing what those are. Okay, we also know that infant directed speech helps babies distinguish different speech sounds and words better. And we also know that it evokes a stronger response in areas of the brain that are involved in processing speech and language. So for all of those reasons, using infant directed speech is really important because it kind of taps into the early experience of the baby, things that are going to make the baby engage emotionally and socially with caregivers.

 

And it also gives the caregivers an anchor on which they can hang speech and language acquisition, a kind of a way in which they can create hooks for babies to learn about words and different parts of speech and different speech sounds, where otherwise there’s just no way of doing that. And so those are kind of the twin functions of infant-directed speech, really, emotional connections, social engagement. And then the flip side of the coin is speech and language learning before speech and language are really there in the brain of the child.

 

Amy

Fascinating. So you use the phrase prosody bootstrapping, can you define that for me, explain a little bit more about what that means, what that is.

 

Gordon

So some aspects of speech, like the difference between Pur and bur, are really about the meaning and contrast in meaning of individual speech sounds. And then other things, if I say, is this a question? Is this a question? Are really about things that extend over a longer time scale, and the more to do either with the syntax of the sentence or the emotion with which I’m communicating it. So prosody is specifically a whole package of things that really are beyond the segment, at least in English. And they include, for example, the intonation, the relative pitch, the melody of your voice as you’re speaking, the rhythm, the timing patterns, the relative durations that you’re choosing to communicate things like emotion or things like that that we tend to exaggerate in infant-directed speech.

 

Amy

So we’ve established that infant directed speech is this natural thing that we don’t necessarily even have to think about. It just is something that’s going to happen when we’re talking to an infant. So on one hand, the parents listening don’t have to worry about it. They don’t have to worry about checking this off their list because they’re already going to do it naturally. But for the parents out there that maybe want to be very conscious about how they’re speaking to their babies and how they can even encourage deeper development and stronger development, what would you recommend as tips to improve upon one’s infant directed speech?

 

Gordon

So as you mentioned, parents already naturally engage in all kinds of behaviors that are appropriate for their children, and they just know intuitively, really, what to do to stimulate interaction with their babies. And I think the main thing is to be aware of when you’re interacting with your child and to think about what you’re doing in order to engage them and to notice things that are more effective at engaging your babies than others. And so the main thing is just to be aware and mindful of how you’re interacting with your child, what you’re using to do that, and also to be aware of your child’s response, and really to use the things that are most effective in stimulating your baby to interact with you or stimulating positive effect in them and positive emotions that you can see in them.

 

And that’s really the main thing that’s important. And there’s no real one recipe for what you should do with infant directed speech, because that does depend also to a certain extent on individual children. So in deaf babies, for example, who can’t hear perhaps they can hear some of the sound, but not all of it. Deaf moms actually tend to exaggerate manual gestures when they’re teaching their babies to sign. They may not use the full range of their voice because they realize pretty quickly that’s really not what’s actually attracting their baby’s attention.

 

So it’s really about being aware and mindful of what is working and not working in terms of engaging your baby and just making sure that you are constantly using the most effective tools in your voice and the way in which you’re interacting with your child in order to get the response that they need and that you need from them.

 

Amy

That’s awesome. And is it possible to be bad at it? Can we mess it up? Or is it just a matter of finding ways to improve and engage deeper?

 

Gordon

So I don’t think we should talk about moms or dads being bad at everything because they’re doing their best. And whatever moms and dads are doing is really a function of the natural biological, ecological interaction between themselves and their child. And that’s a natural, interactive process that depends not only on the parent but also the child, and vice versa. So there are things that can go wrong. So if a parent is depressed, for example, or if a child isn’t responding because they have some kind of early neurological disorder like autism, for example, then that process of interaction may be disrupted, and that may disrupt both the way in which parents are talking to their babies and the way in which babies are responding to the parents.

 

But the most important thing is to think about it as a process of interaction and social interaction and thinking about the kind of currency of exchange that parents and babies are creating with each other and agreeing to use in order to interact. So again, I don’t think parents are bad at doing it, but they may find that either they or their babies, for whatever reason, are doing things differently. And if things are happening differently, the main thing is to be aware of that and to look at, again, focusing on how to promote social interactions very early on through any means that works.

 

And being aware of if you are perhaps not responding to or engaging with your baby, or if your baby is not responding to engaging with you relative to what you might see if you watched a whole load of typically developing babies and parents naturally engaging with each other, and all the variabilities and natural variability that we see in that process, which is really important.

 

Amy

Gordon, I mean, I couldn’t agree more. And we’re all about that here at Growing Up Brainy and a small talk that we’re not here to make parents feel like they’re doing anything wrong. But for those parents who are looking for tips to do a little bit more, to do things differently or to understand what’s happening behind the scenes in their little baby’s brain, that is what we’re here for. And so we’ve already learned so much from you today, and knowing parents are busy, we try to keep these episodes to 20 ish minutes.

 

So thank you for being here today. And I know that I already have some follow up questions to some of these things that you mentioned that I’d love to go a little bit deeper. So for those parents listening, I hope that you’ve learned something today. I hope you feel inspired. I hope you feel confident in your baby talk and you don’t feel silly, you know, that it’s good for them. And I hope you tune in for the next episode where we’ll dig a little deeper.

 

Well, that is all we have for you today. Thanks so much for joining us on Growing Up Brainy. Till next time, we hope you’ll subscribe, leave us a review, or best of all, follow smallTalk.tech on Instagram to join in the conversation.

Growing Up Brainy is brought to you by smallTalk. smallTalk allows your baby to engage with foreign language through play. This interactive language exposure during infancy results in what we like to call brain magic-- wiring your little one’s brain with the building blocks of a new language and gaining them a different and better brain for a lifetime. Look for our first product, the smallTalk Egg, launching this fall of 2021.

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