If new parents ever feel like their baby is controlling their lives, research now shows they could be right—at least when it comes to how they speak. A new study, published in the Journal of Child Language, found that parents simplify their language in response to the babbling of their babies.
A healthy relationship between an infant and his or her parents includes back and forth communication through sounds, movement and words. Since two way communication involves give and take from both parties, researchers at Cornell’s Behavioral Analysis of Beginning Years (B.A.B.Y.) Laboratory set out to look at how babies and parents respond to each others’ communication.
The researchers studied 30 sets of parents and their infants between the ages of 9 and 10 months. They attached microphones to the bib of the babies’ overalls and observed them in free play with their mothers.
Babies’ babbling has a purpose
By examining their communication patterns over two thirty-minute play periods, they discovered that not only did the babies babble for their parents attention, but the parents responded with more simple speech patterns. “Adults unconsciously modify their speech to include fewer unique words, shorter sentences, and more one-word replies,” notes the Cornell Chronicle. “This simplified speech happens only in response to the baby’s babbling, and not when the adult is simply talking to the baby.” The babies’ babbling was actually helping to simplify their parents’ language for their own benefit.
Lead author of the study and doctoral candidate in Psychology, Steven Elmlinger, explains, “Infants are actually shaping their own learning environments in ways that make learning easier to do.” His team found that “[b]abbling is a social catalyst for babies to get information from the adults around them.”
This means small, everyday moments are important for language development.
Parent and infant bonding has long been a heavily researched topic, but this study places even more importance on a parent’s ability to attend to their child’s attempts at communication. HealthyChildren.org, a site maintained by the American Academy of Pediatrics, says that “these exchanges may seem meaningless, but they tell your baby that communication is two-way and that she’s a welcome participant.”