0 - 12 Months

Baby talk: Learning your baby’s language with communication and play

“When we look into the eyes of the baby, and we look at what they find interesting and we comment on it, that’s the very best thing that we can do to help build their communication and later language skills.”

Dr. Kathy Hirsh-Passek, Professor of Psychology at Temple University

Ever get the feeling like you are babbling more than your baby? It turns out that going gaga over your baby actually serves a purpose. It helps them with language acquisition! Their brains are taking in loads of information from these back-and-forth interactions.

Jessica Rolph welcomes Dr. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek to this episode to explore the characteristics of this early communication. Kathy is a  professor in psychology at Temple University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. She is also co-author of Becoming Brilliant: What Science Tells Us About Raising Successful Children

Key Takeaways:

[1:12] How can a parent contribute to the building of communication skills?

[2:30] Remember to pause and create space for your baby to respond.

[3:24] Kathy talks about infant-directed speech.

[5:30] The back-and-forth conversation with a baby might be more important than we thought.

[6:30] Technology sometimes gets in the way of opportunities to communicate with our babies. 

Mentioned in this episode:

Becoming Brilliant: What Science Tells Us About Raising Successful Children

How to build your baby’s communication skills

Jessica: So Kathy, you study language development. How can a parent help build a baby’s communication skills? 

Kathy: Well the very best way to build the baby’s communication skills is to communicate. I know that seems trite and almost too simple, but when we look into the eyes of the baby. And we look at what they find interesting and we comment on it, that’s the very best thing that we can do to help build their communication and later language skills. When we let them take turns with us. So we say, “Hi, you’re looking so cute today.” And they go, “kaaahh” And we go, “Yes, you did.” And we answer them with respect, even if we have no idea what they said. That’s how they learn communication skills. And the other thing we have to be careful about is not to jump in. Sometimes our babies need just a little bit of time to get their act together.

So in one beautiful tape that I’m happy to share with you, I have a mom and a baby and they’re going back and forth and back and forth, and at one point, the baby takes just a little bit longer to answer, and the mother is so brilliant even if she is my daughter-in-law. She holds off to let Ellie have the chance to talk before she responds.

Advantages of parentese and baby talk

Jessica: And I notice when you were explaining that, first of all, it is so hard to remember to pause. My husband was always so much better at that than I was. I just, get so excited when I’m talking to my little person and they’re talking back. I remember consciously needing to create a little bit more space for my babies to respond. And I noticed when you were just giving that example, you were using the baby voice. Are there any benefits to talking in parentese or speaking with a lot of high intonation? 

Kathy: Well there actually are. First of all I should know there’s a lot of different types of baby talk or infant, what we call infant-directed speech in the more formal parlance. And they vary… It varies from country to country. So the British don’t use the real high-pitched voice with the sing-song that Americans do. But all of the us have a version, all around the world people have a version of this baby talk. And when you look at all the studies that had been done on it, you find out it’s kind of an au naturel thing for parents. In fact parents who don’t use it would kinda have to work hard to not use it. And the second thing we’ve realized is that when you hear that weird voice, “Hi. Oh, you look so cute today!” Which, by the way, you also use when you’re talking to your dog, to old people, and to people who don’t speak our language. [chuckle] We tend to put on that special voice. So to our children, it comes across as, in baby world, it says, “This language is meant for you.” And babies then pay more attention to that and to that tone of voice. Is that interesting? So, yeah, there’s advantages when you talk in that voice. You also elongate the ends of sentences, and you elongate the vowels in the sentence, making them more clear for the babies. So you don’t have to do anything. As I say, it comes au naturel. But if you follow the au naturel, then you’d find that this particular language we speak with babes actually does have some advantages for infants.

Jessica: Fascinating. I love hearing that what comes naturally is healthy, 

Back-and-forth conversations with babies

Kathy: Right now, I think the most exciting thing that’s going on in our field, may be that this back-and-forth conversation is much more important than we thought it was. It turns out that it’s actually building brain structure and brain connectivity for little people. That it actually is a key feature of the quality of the interaction that we have with our babies and how they grow language, which is fascinating. And that in those moments when you’re having conversations… You know how sometimes you can have a conversation over dinner and you just look in the eyes of the other person and you know you’re in sync. Well, the same thing is true with babies, and people are starting to figure out what that synchrony looks like. And in those synchronous moments, we think something special might be going on, and that something special may be the moments when babies pick up the most. So it’s really, really important. Another thing that we’ve learned in our lab is that sometimes the technology is getting in the way of those special moments. If you take one study that we did, where Jen Sash was the lead author, and we just looked at electronic versus traditional shape sorters.

And when you look at that, what you find is that the electronic gadgets and gizmos, now this is with slightly older kids. But it’s kind of a non-invitation for the parents because the toy is talking so much. And when you just have a regular old boring old shape sorter, then you have more of those conversations which are better for the children. In another study, we looked at book-reading in the same way. E-books versus traditional books. Same story, the littler you are. And when you talk about some of that interference, it’s not just how the baby uses things, but it’s also how we do. When we are constantly looking at the analytics, which scare us anyway, when we’re constantly looking at our watches to figure out how many steps did we take, how many did the baby take, what’s their oxygenation level, etcetera, we are getting in the way of looking in the eyes of our child. And when we get in the way of that conversation, that’s when we’re really doing the most harm. So, just for a few minutes a day, start with two, two minutes a day of your time, look in your baby’s eyes. Look what they’re looking at, comment on it, and have your phone in another room.

Jessica: That is the most beautiful perfect advice for every single parent today, including me. Thank you so much, Kathy. It’s been such a pleasure having you with us.

Kathy: It’s been a pleasure, thank you.

Episode takeaways

So much to talk about!

Build brain structure with back and forth conversations

Back and forth conversation between you and your baby builds your baby’s brain structure and is the foundation for developing language. 

Communicate with your baby

Take turns communicating with your baby, even “answering” them when they make little noises. Try not to jump in too quickly, because sometimes it takes time for your baby to respond. 

Baby talk helps your baby tune in

When you use the high pitched baby talk voice – research shows it actually helps your baby tune in. 

You can learn more on Lovevery’s blog, “Here With You.”


Kate Garlinge Avatar

Kate Garlinge

Visit site

Posted in: 0 - 12 Months, Language, Communication, Child Development

Keep reading