March 25th, 2010
05:23 PM ET

Experts: Talking to your baby can build language skills

By Val Willingham
CNN Medical Producer

If you're the parent of an infant, chances are you're doing a lot of cooing to communicate with your child. But instead of just making sounds, child psychologists say, you may want to actually talk to your baby while you identify objects.

Researchers at Northwestern University have found that even before your little one begins to speak, words play an important role in your child's comprehension and communication.

The research, which was compiled by the psychology department in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, was published in the most recent issue of the journal Child Development. Participants included 46 infants, from 2 to 4 months of age. Half of the infants were assigned to a word group. The remaining infants were in the tone group. In the study, the babies were shown a series of pictures of fish that were paired with words or beeps. Infants in the word groups were told things such as "Look at the toma!" - a made up word for fish, as the babies looked at each picture. In the other group, infants heard a series of beeps instead of words as they looked at the pictures. Then both groups were shown a picture of a different fish and a dinosaur side by side as the researcher measured how long each child looked at the pictures.

The study authors said the results were striking. They found that although babies in both groups saw exactly the same picture for exactly the same amount of time, those who heard the words later identified other fish, by looking at them longer and therefore mentally categorizing them. Those who heard tones did not.

"For infants as young as 3 months of age, words exert a special influence that supports the ability to form a category," said Susan Hespos, associate professor of psychology and one of the authors of the study. “These findings offer the earliest evidence to date for a link between words and object categories."

The study investigators suspect that human speech, directed to infants actually helps them to become more aware of their surroundings and makes it easier for them to recognize and categorize objects that are brought to their attention. And while babies continue to grow and learn words, talking to them and identifying objects will help them distinguish individual words and their meanings, which makes it easier for children to learn to talk and eventually communicate.

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Filed under: Caregiving • Children's Health • Parenting

soundoff (38 Responses)
  1. Jay Swaminathan

    This makes a whole lot of sense. Stories like Tarzan and Jungle Book (mowglee) had always intrigued me, and maybe because of the influence they had on me , I had always questioned the use of baby talk and cooing in front of babies. I always felt this achieved nothing but delay the babies language skills..
    Maybe my hunch wasn't so wrong after all 🙂


    March 25, 2010 at 22:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. tanya w

    I can attest that skipping the baby talk & cooing with newborns works wonders on your child's language skills. We have never spoken baby talk to our now 19th month old son, always enunciating each syllable (turtle was tur-tle), constantly reading to him, and pointing out every object. His language skills are amazing...his first word at 10 months was dog, then mama & dada, then it just took off like wildfire. We stopped counting at 200 words and that was months ago. The funny thing is so many people told us not to compare our son to other children, especially girls, because boys are much less verbal than girls.

    March 25, 2010 at 22:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Spencer

    What a ridiculous conclusion to draw from this study. Children paid more attention to fish after hearing a human voice than those that heard "beeps"? Of course they did! What that has to do with parents cooing vs using words, I can not imagine.

    Everywhere around the world parents, and all adults, seem to have strong urge to coo to children. It wouldn't surprise me if this turns out to be a genetic adaptation with survival benefit. Babies lives are surrounded by language that they overhear all day long, and they seem to learn it just fine already.

    March 25, 2010 at 23:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Robin Einzig

    There seems no doubt that speaking with infants, even the youngest ones, can only bring developmental advantages.

    At the same time, it is disheartening to see this study cited as evidence, when it is comparing human words to "beeps" and then claiming that words are greatly more beneficial than "cooing". The study shows no such thing. It shows, if anything, that human voices are more reinforcing that mechanical sounds. If they wanted to demonstrate that words are important, why wouldn't they have compared mother's words with mother's enthusiastic "oohs" and "aahs" when the fish pictures were shown?

    It is truly irritating to have such important information relayed in a way that seems, at it's core, so faulty. This is an important message, telling parents to speak to children from birth, including labeling objects. Let's communicate the importance of that in a way that actually makes sense!!

    March 25, 2010 at 23:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Ross D. Pollack

    Your article and he Northwestern study confirm my experiences as an au pair during my first year in law school. While imitative noises were noted and appreciated as play by the baby in my care, spoken English drew a different level of interest and reaction. Starting with nouns - the names for things in view or in hand - it was possible to build understandable simple sentences by eight or nine months of age.

    By the way, I've found the same technique - plain spoken English - works surprisingly well with cats, as well. After a similar build-up from nouns to simple sentences over a year or two, I have seen cats carry out suggestions to "Go look out the window," "Lie and down and roll over," "Stick out your tongue," and "Can you thump your tail?" I suspect these reactions are heavily IQ and personality dependent, but I'm convinced that words spoken by humans do have real power for infants and cats.

    March 25, 2010 at 23:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Jennifer S.

    I completely believe in this research. We have been talking to our son since day one – avoiding most baby-talk. By 18 mos. he was talking in five word sentences and by two he was linking eight words. Now, at 30 months, his language and language comprehension is completely off the charts. It is so easy just to explain your everyday actions ("I am washing these dirty dishes so that you have clean bottles to use"). It may seem like you are talking to yourself, but they are little sponges just taking everything in.

    March 25, 2010 at 23:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. kevin mahoney

    I think that the sooner a baby can learn a few words, the sooner their brain can get set up for learning more quicker and move onto the pattern of language. Everytime a baby eats or is greeted, it should be the same words. There is no way that they are going to be able to learn sentences. It is almost like training a dog. You want to stick with about 10 words. The sooner they can pick those up, the quicker they will be able to pick up a lot more. People focus on senteces and they say the same concept three different ways in three different senteces consecutivly.

    March 26, 2010 at 00:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Armando Escobedo

    I have a Six month old, Natalia, and this has been something that I've insisted on for several months now. I started by naming her favorite toys and her juice bottles. She has a consistant reaccion for each individual object, even before showing it to her, she can actually tell them apart by the word spoken to her. The goo goo ga ga is no longer allowed in our home and we now speak to her all the time, clear and complete sentences, I'm convinced that even if she doesnt understand the meaning she is definitely aware of the paterns that are associated with the words. I encourage all parents to stimulate their infants with conversation. I also played music for her during bath time, the same songs, and as soon as she heard these songs she would get restless and would roll to her back for me to take off her daiper. As parents we want to make these baby years last for ever, I know I do, but its best to get an early start on their education and give them as many early skills as possible.

    March 26, 2010 at 00:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. alisha

    did we really not know this? i talked to my children before they were born and never really allowed baby talk in our house. (okay i do admit to the "Bubba (bottle)? we don't need need no stinkin Bubba") or at times it was the "Binki? we don't need no stinkin Binki" after which the binki was promptly spit onto the floor. if you want your kids to speak like adults they need to hear adult language. by the time my kids were 2 "actually" was their favorite word. i looked back and realized that i said "actually, that is a fire hydrant", or "actually, that is a blue truck" .... we sometimes forget that we are not raising children but adults. i am appalled by the number of parents of 12 year olds that still say "do you have to go potty before we leave?" what 40 year old manager says "potty?" !!!! my kids knew real words like that because they heard words that were used in the real word.....my kids are great...all A's but not creepy smart... i just used real words and made them use them too.... although i have to admit i do get the "mom! use words that we know! what does that even mean?" but then they go to school and come back and say "i knew what discombobulated meant and no one else had a clue!"....(she was 8)

    March 26, 2010 at 00:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Kevin Cassidy

    I've been trying to explain this to friends and girlfriends for years – all I get is "what do you know?"

    March 26, 2010 at 02:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Sara

    This seems very common sense to me. I don't know why people actually had to "study" this.

    March 26, 2010 at 02:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. JB

    Years ago a friend of mine (Phd in Early Childhood Development) introduced me to a book called Baby Signs. When our twins were born, we immediately started using the signs on simple objects and activities, and like clockwork, at 10 months they started using the signs. We are a bilingual family (English for me, Chinese for my wife), and unlike most children (according to statistics) in bilingual families, our children started speak earlier than most single-language families. They both have excellent language skills for 3-year-olds, despite me being the only person they communicate with in English on a regular basis. Since day one, we have spoken to them like normal people (as opposed to speaking with them as if they were intellectually challenged). Strangely enough, my son knows his alphabet (and can spell simple words) and our daughter recognizes more Chinese characters than her brother...I'm sure there is a right-brain, left-brain explanation for this. I'm not a doctor or language expert (although I am tri-lingual), but I am convinced the Baby Signs, normal language, and daily reading have all played into our childrens' language development. For the record, I have no "connection" to the writers, publisher, or otherwise of the Baby Signs book – I just want to share the extraordinary experience (thus far) we have had with our children and their language skills.

    March 26, 2010 at 02:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. George

    I agree to this study. I have seen marked differences in the child's expertise in categorisation of things based on how my kids have grown-up based on the practice of using more word language than baby talks!

    March 26, 2010 at 02:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. james


    March 26, 2010 at 05:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Inge Jones

    I don't think it proves what they say it proves. It's to do with the sound of the human voice, not the actual utterance of the word. Babies are attuned to human voices. I would predict that if they repeated this experiment with a human voice making noises instead of a machine, the infant would be just as responsive as they were to the words.

    March 26, 2010 at 05:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. tntwise

    When my two children started kindergarten, their teachers complimented me on their verbal skills. The only thing I did was talk to them like they could understand; for instance, if I was cooking, they were in the kitchen too and I told them what I was doing as I cooked. My family members did the same – answered their questions, explained when needed, and talked to them like intelligent humans instead of babies incapable of learning "until they were older".

    March 29, 2010 at 17:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Carol

    There is nothing new here. My daughter, now almost 38 years old, was always spoken to in plain English. She started using words at about 10 months old. Her first word was cat! By the time she was two she was having wonderful conversations with everyone around her. Her two children are following in her footsteps. Both are very verbal and enjoy playing with words (rhyming etc.). Her oldest is 3 1/2 years old and recognizes words (without pictures).

    March 29, 2010 at 18:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. sheila

    I wouldn't be so quick to dismiss baby talk. I remember reading a study years ago that said women all over the world, not matter what culture they're raised in, make the same sort of elongated vowel sounds when talking to young babies. The conclusion of the study was that there is probably some developmental advantage to doing that, and that's why mothers all over seem to do it naturally.

    March 30, 2010 at 08:30 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Meggie

      I might be doing my science fair project on this topic. I f choose this topic then i will collect all the studies i can find ( at least three) and crtique them and then see what the maority of the studies have said. So far have found only one. I would appreciae it if you could give me the person who did the study or wher you ot it or wat it was called!! if you can remeber that is... 🙂 thankyou!!!

      August 11, 2010 at 10:44 | Report abuse |
  19. Buddleiagirl

    We always talked to our kids when they were small, and they are quite verbose now. It's funny – whe grandparents came to visit and made all the cooing sounds, the babies would come to me, looking all distressed "OMG, whats wrong with them, they can't talk anymore!"

    March 30, 2010 at 21:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. Nancy Allen

    I think both is important–cooing and talking.

    Cooing is soothing and talking directly to baby is learning
    verbal skills for a baby. So, let's not forget to do both. Let's
    don't forget to listen and answer our babies / young child when
    they do talk. I can't tell you the number of times I have been
    at a child center or grocery store and when the toddler or
    young child ask a question or points out something to
    a parent/care provider, the child's question or discovery
    is ignored.

    March 31, 2010 at 07:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. elston harregan

    all good answers i've tried all the above but my child still has trouble pronouncing certain words and he's almost 3 understands everything but can't pronounce the words correctly what do you suggest going to see a speech therapist

    March 31, 2010 at 19:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. Mike

    If there has to be a study on this, you know theres something wrong with like, half the kids being raised now.

    April 1, 2010 at 01:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. Misty

    I agree that using words instead of sounds helps prepare baby for language development. I talked to my son in sentences from birth. His first word spoken at 6 months was grandpa and at 8 months I walked into the room in time to hear him tell my niece "I want that toy". It was a brightly colored snail that lit up and taught the alphabet. At around 3 1/2 or 4 yrs. old he read his first word "red" and quickly learned from there how to use phonics to figure out the rest of the words in the book. Now at 10 yrs. old he has a relatively high IQ, an outstanding vocabulary, and is part of the Gifted and Talented Program in school.

    May 3, 2010 at 19:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. Janine

    As an instructor of the Baby Signs program http://www.babysigns.com.au, which is a communication tool for hearing babies before they can talk, I find research into infant communication fasinating and love reading research and articles like this. The Baby Signs program does endorse using sign, word and visual object together as this helps to cement babies understanding of the object, concept or feeling.

    October 12, 2010 at 08:05 | Report abuse | Reply
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