Moms and dads have different effects on their babies' language learning


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During their earliest years, children, naturally, pick up language from those around them — and from their parents most of all. Yet, mothers and fathers communicate with their offspring in very different ways. It has been suggested that the baby talk used by mothers is an important bonding tool that helps the child engage with maternal patterns of speech. But it seems that fathers who do not join in with the sweet talking still have an important role of their own.



Anyone who has listened to mothers with their babies or toddlers will recognize the seemingly infantile patterns of speech adopted when they talk to young children. They typically use a wider range of pitches, frequently switching between highs and lows, and usually using a higher register. This sing-song phenomenon — more formally called "child-directed speech" — has been labeled "motherese" because most research on parent-child interactions has routinely focused on the mother's role.

Although scientists have traditionally studied this behavior in mothers to understand the function it plays in child language acquisition, as gender roles blur and fathers become more involved with their children's upbringing, researchers from Washington State University are now investigating whether fathers modify their speech in the same way. The results suggest that fathers engage significantly less in regular patterns of motherese. Research presented today at the 169th meeting of the Acoustical Society of America suggests that by tending to avoid baby talk, rather than using language as a bonding tool, men may provide for their children a "bridge" to adult speech.


Louder than words

A team from Washington State University recorded interactions between preschoolers and their parents over the course of a normal day using body-worn recording devices. They then used sophisticated speech-recognition software to analyze the hundreds of hours of communication they had collected, ascertaining who was talking to whom, and when. They then compared the differences between the way the mothers and fathers spoke to their children compared to conversations with other adults.

The WSU study is the first to look at fathers' interactions with their children in a real-world setting and using automatic data processing. On the face of it, the team says, the findings confirm previous studies. Mothers adopted the familiar high and more varied pitches when interacting with their child much more often than they did with adults. Fathers didn't use this pattern — they talked to their children using intonation more like that used with other adults.


Speak to me

This is a small child participating in acoustics research. Speech & Language Lab/Washington State University.

This apparently stand-offish behavior by fathers is not necessarily a bad thing, though. "It's not a failing of the fathers," said Mark VanDam, the professor in the Speech and Hearing Sciences department at WSU who headed the study. "We think that maybe fathers are doing things that are conducive to their children's learning but in a different way. The parents are complementary to their children's language learning." The data supports what VanDam refers to as the "bridge hypothesis."

When mothers speak to young children in the lilt of motherese, they use attention-catching cadences and exaggerated vocal features that are particularly attractive to babies and young children. Previous research has suggested that this helps children learn faster when they're at a critical stage of language acquisition. Adult speech tends to be more monotonous — less musical and more difficult for a young ear to parse. However, by speaking to their children more like adults, fathers might act as a link to the outside world by helping the infant deal with unfamiliar speech. By comparing the two modes of speech, the young ear can familiarize itself with the sound of words and then apply them to "real world" conversation.


Keep talking

The researchers also point out that a father's less frequent use of classic babytalk doesn't mean that he isn't modifying his speech in other ways — by using different vocabulary or by changing the volume or duration of his delivery. Other unknown factors may influence things in ways that are not yet fully understood. VanDam believes the age and sex of the child might influence the father's interactions and this study only looked at families with a mother and father who both lived full-time with the child, so the researchers don't know how the results might differ in single-parent families or those headed by same-sex couples.

VanDam's team are also interested in looking at how these differences apply in families where children have problems with hearing loss. This, they believe, will help further understanding into how such challenges affect speech production and learning.