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Do you think using baby talk is innate or learned?

Asked at Massachusetts Street on August 24, 2007

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Photo of Emily Meyer

“I think it’s innate. I’ve never met a woman who doesn’t use it around babies. My dad even uses it with my dog.”

Photo of Nathanael May

“I think it’s more of a behavioral thing people learn from their culture.”

Photo of Arkisha Beasley

“I think it’s innate. Although, according to my child development class, baby talk has no educational purpose. I think it’s just a natural thing for people to do.”

Photo of Julie Langton

“I think it’s learned. People just use it because they think it’s comforting or soothing to children.”

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redwaggoner 10 years, 8 months ago

It is definitely a learned habit. If a child is going to learn a language, be it englis or any other, the parents need to speak clearly and distinctly to them or they will not learn it until they get to school and then teachers have to start teaching them from the beginning. To hear a parent goo-gooing and ga-gaing to a baby, is not only annoying, but insane!

H_Lecter 10 years, 8 months ago

Funny... I've noticed that people never talk like that when when they're worried that they're about to suffer a painfully horrible death at the hands of a serial killer. learned

justsomewench 10 years, 8 months ago

learned. passed on from idiot to idiot.

bottom line: it's annoying as hell and cruel, considering the baby can't do a damned thing to say so.

Bradley Kemp 10 years, 8 months ago

Children don't need to be talked to at all in order to acquire their native language. In fact, there are cultures where adults don't talk to their children until the children start talking themselves. All children need to acquire a language is linguistic input, which they can get just as easily listening to adults talk to one another as from being talked to by adults.

Just like any other behavior, if baby talk is innate, it should occur in all cultures. It does not, so it cannot be innate.

Haiku_Cuckoo 10 years, 8 months ago

One of my favorite exchanges from the Bob Newhart show:

Bob:(Into phone) Hello. Is this the House of Hu? I'd like to order some Chinese food. (to men with him) What do you want? Jerry: Howard wants pizza. Howard: No I don't. I want some Moo Goo Gai Pan. Bob: (Into phone) Did you hear what Howard wants? Oh. Moo Goo Gai Pan. Jerry: That's what I want, too. Dr. Jerry Robinson wants Moo Goo Gai Pan. Bob: (Into phone) And more Moo Goo Goo Goo. Jerry: Did you hear what you said, Bob? You said, "more Moo Goo Goo Goo." You said "Moo Goo Goo Goo." Howard: That's right. You said "Moo Goo Goo Goo." Bob: Maybe I'm ordering Chinese baby food.

Grundoon Luna 10 years, 8 months ago

Definitely learned. My folks didn't use it on us and we didn't use it on our kids. That's not to say that we didn't make a lot of funny noises and strange faces in hopes of a respone from our babies, but we left the idiot babble alone.

canyon_wren 10 years, 8 months ago

I would assume that it is learned. I don't think I have ever heard baby talk from babies that hadn't been talked to that way by some stupid adult--and maybe not even then. I think baby talk is ridiculous, especially when used with dogs--usually the little, yippy ones that you can't see their eyes unless their hair is tied up with a bow. I don't know that I have ever heard someone talk to a Labrador Retriever that way!

I say let's eliminate baby-talk from our culture! (As if that would be possible!)

Shar623 10 years, 8 months ago

Not all women talk baby talk. I don't know many that do. If you want a child to learn to speak correct English you must speak correct English to them. Speaking baby talk is a learned bad habit.

Kevin Sontag 10 years, 8 months ago

Wow, how did they get Harry Carey and Martin Landau to answer the question of the day?!

...Oh, it's just more chicks in enormous glasses. Knock it off, ladies! You look rediculous.

canyon_wren 10 years, 8 months ago

Pywacket--I agree that it might be more tolerable to talk to a dog that way. I guess there are people who talk to big dogs that way, too. I suppose it is a family thing--if you grow up hearing adults use that with babies or dogs, it seems more natural, but it surely sound foolish to me, and even more so when I hear men use it, which is not all that often, thank goodness. Guess that really is a sexist remark! Men have as much right to be ridiculous as women do!!

trinity 10 years, 8 months ago

oh come ON, some of my favorite posters are being just a widdle bitty snootypooty?! wookin' down theiw shawp sophisticated haughty noses at others???

i'm sorry, i guess it's the baser side of me that cannot resist snugglin' up one of my grandbabies (when they were still of swaddling age) and cooing, babbling, and in general sugarin' the kid up one side&down the other! (but mostly always one on one, heh).

have a snookywookiewillydilly of a friday&weekend, sugarlumpbabydollangelfaces! ;)

friday friday friDAY friday friday friDAY friday friday friDAYYYYYYYYYYYYY! :)

mom_of_three 10 years, 8 months ago

I think it is innate. When I am meeting a baby or a toddler, I naturally find myself talking to them in a voice they find engaging, which is more animated than my normal voice. I don't necessarily consider it baby talk because I am not making up words or phrases (and I do sometimes find myself using it on my jack russell, because she knows it's playtime) But when I was teaching my kids right from wrong, and lessons, it wasn't in a baby talk tone either. But it wasn't necessarily in an adult form of conversation either.

canyon_wren 10 years, 8 months ago

Hi, Trinity!

Don't know if you were including me, but I did sound a bit snooty about it. However, I can't believe that Emily (first interviewee at top) has never been around a woman who DIDN'T talk baby talk to her baby. Wow! I would have to say her experience has been pretty limited. And no one loves cuddling babies more than I do, but I was never tempted to use baby talk with babies OR animals--nor did either of my sisters. Guess, as I said before, it is all just part of your early experience and is not a matter of one approach being superior to another! Sorry I came across that way. I will try to do better next time!

sunflower_sue 10 years, 8 months ago

I'm not a "baby talker" but my pitch will rise a bit making my voice sound sweeter to the baby. Especially when playing with the tot. My words are all the same...just a different sound to them. ('Cept maybe the part where I tell them: You are a cutie wootie. Yes you are! Yes you are!) No, seriously...I'm not that bad but I will gush over a cute baby just like most.

imastinker 10 years, 8 months ago

We always talked to our kids normally. Both ours are now talking much better than most kids their age. I think this had a lot to do with it. One of ours is an infant, another a toddler.

Rae Smith Evans 10 years, 8 months ago

The behavior is learned, but it often feels instinctive because of societal norms. It was once believed that babytalk helped young children learn the rhythms of speech, so when parents were speaking this way, they thought they were helping their children. It has since been found that babytalk has very little, if any, value to a young child. A good way to teach children the rhythms of speech is to read and sing to them. In particular, poetry, books (such as Suess books) and music with repetitive sounds and strong rhythms are excellent.

ms_canada 10 years, 8 months ago

I honestly can't remember talking baby talk to my own young ones. what the heck is baby talk anyway? I think sunny sue got it right. If you use a different tone of voice but sensible words, is that baby talk? I don't think so.
I believe talking silly to animals would be the same as talking to a baby. "Oh whose a bitty witty poochie woochie sweetums". or "whose a itty bitty dolly wolly babums." I don't think I ever have said anything like that to my pets or babies. I have a cat and I talk to her all the time, but like sue I only use a change of voice tone. And I sure don't know why the heck I do that. I guess it's something innate. :o) or learned. :o)

canyon_wren 10 years, 8 months ago

Good comment, rae287. Another good set of books to read to children for the rhythm (and rhyme), in addition to the Seuss books, are the two books by A.A. Milne (more famous for the Pooh books, which we never read as children)--When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six. Wonderful poems in there that we really loved and still stick in my mind. I guess the most important thing is that mothers (and fathers) DO talk to their babies. Some parents do very little of that, and baby talk--and that attention--is probably a lot better than nothing!

sunflower_sue 10 years, 8 months ago

RI, snicker Seriously, leave the ammo at home!

Ceallach 10 years, 8 months ago

What a bunch of Scrooges!! Now it's not PC to talk baby talk? ROFLMAO

My children learned to speak English long before they went to school. Two of the three were starting to read - aloud - in English. Maybe they were just uber-babies!!!

This sounds like more of the "modern" child raising methodology. I talked baby talk to mine, I didn't let them cry themselves to sleep so they could learn to be alone at bedtime and still go to sleep (why would any child under one year of age need to learn to be alone?), and I fed them on their schedule. To some that would make me a three time loser . . . like I care :)

RI, chaperone? Absolutely. About the ammo, I'm sure your wordsmithing will be more than enough to intimidate a 7th grade boy. He will walk away shaking his head and muttering . . uh, what does that mean?

ontheotherhand 10 years, 8 months ago

Maybe it's just adapting to the current environment. Don't we sound a little different when we talk to our friends vs when we talk to our parents or bosses or clergy? Does your tone/inflection change, too? Before you poo-poo the idea, think of all the guys whose voices seem to get a little deeper (and cockier) when they are talking to women at a bar, and you KNOW they don't usually sound like that. Women's voices change, too, in different circumstances. Do you ever find yourself talking "tougher" when you are around people whom you think are cooler or more tough than you? Don't you sound more educated when you are trying to impress people? Why not sound like a dope when you are talking to a child? :)

imastinker 10 years, 8 months ago

I wonder if Emily's dad is making fun of her little dog and she doesn't know it?

sunflower_sue 10 years, 8 months ago

Ceal, Since I was a "walking milk machine" for what seemed like years, I guess I fed my kids on their schedules...unless they were hungry while I was in a checkout line or something. (The milk was going to happen if I wanted it to or not.) :)~

RI, I'm sure that fine young teen boy wouldn't do anything that you wouldn't have done at that age. deep breath hahahahahahahahaha...

Grundoon Luna 10 years, 8 months ago

Ms_C! Thanks for giving me the skinny on the Rush concert a while back. Tude-Dude took me for an early b-day present last night and it was wicked awsome!! That is a boy who loves his mother!!!

After tons of people were taking pictures with their camera phones, Geddy Lee decided to return the favor and brought his video recorder out and had all whatever thousand of us say, "Hello, Canada!!"

Du-u-u-u-ude, I bet they heard us in Canada, man!

storm 10 years, 8 months ago

Baby talk (to me) consists of saying words twice in a row, like bye-bye. do-doo or rhyming words or sing-songy phrases. I think it is an educational tool and we innately do this to help communicate with the child.

camper 10 years, 8 months ago

NPR talks to us like babies. Babies and pets just look at us funny. They love us, but aren't sure why we carry on the way we do.

storm 10 years, 8 months ago

I think baby talk is used in other cultures because I was raised in two cultures, and I've heard the baby talk in both - probably not in all cultures, though.

manyblessings 10 years, 7 months ago

I wouldn't say we really used "baby talk" with any of our babies much. I have always talked to my kids a lot and in turn they all learned to talk early and have had wide vocabularies for their ages. I talk to them about everyday things, but not necessarily in the same way I would talk to an adult. I don't say " Look at the boat over there! See the boat? Yes, that is a boat! Do you like the boat? Look at it go! It's fast, isn't it? " to adults, so maybe I used "baby talk" to an extent, but not to the point of babbling nonsense. My mother in law likes to talk baby talk to my little ones and they look at her like she is crazy when she says things like " time to go sleepy night night! " I am sure they must think she has some sort of speech issues, so they don't say anything about it!

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