No matter what one’s native language is, everyone’s first language is baby talk. Babies pick up on the sounds other people make almost from birth and within months recognize and respond to various voices. They quickly learn the difference between the voices of their mother, father, and others. A recent study from Washington State University (WSU) in Spokane explored the different ways different people speak to young children and how these communication differences affect or influence the child.

Professor Mark VanDam, of the WSU Department of Speech & Hearing Sciences, and his research team discovered marked differences in the way mothers speak to their pre-schoolers and the way fathers speak to them. His pilot study involved families that included a mother and a father who both lived full-time together with the child.

The theory behind VanDam’s work is that both parents contribute to the language development and social skills of the child and he wanted to know if both parents were contributing the same degree of development or did each parent bring a different skill set to the table. Given today’s trends in shifting family composition, the researchers wanted to see how each parent interacts verbally with the child so that future studies could isolate variances in language development skills in children being raised by a single parent or by two parents of the same gender.

To gauge parental verbal interactions with the child in the most natural setting possible, VanDam’s team enlisted families with a child of preschool age that would allow recording devices to be activated at each family’s home for an entire day. The recordings were then digitally analyzed for variances in pitch, tone, speed, and other elements of speech.


The researchers discovered parents do, indeed, speak differently to their young child. “Motherese,” the term the researchers use to identify the exaggerated speaking style adults typically use when addressing a baby or very young child, is more common in mothers than fathers. Mothers tend to speak to the child in a higher pitch than normal and they vary pitch more often and more dramatically when speaking to the child than they do when conversing with adults and older children.

It is believed that motherese helps the child bond with the parent. The sing-song cadence of this form of baby talk is attractive to the child, getting his attention by its sound and also by the exaggerated facial movements that are needed to produce these sounds. These magnified sounds and movements help the child learn the mechanics of speech.

The Bridge Hypothesis

Fathers, on the other hand, don’t use baby talk so much. They are more likely to speak to the child in similar fashion as they speak to adults although with some variations. When speaking to a young child, fathers use a less complex vocabulary and adjust volume and length of speech to accommodate the child’s age and, possibly, its gender.

The study supported what VanDam refers to as the bridge hypothesis, which theorizes the father’s use of less baby talk helps the child identify different communication skills that will become important to its social interactions with the outside world as it grows up. It bridges the familiar with the unfamiliar for the child as the child’s world expands. While motherese teaches the mechanics of voice, the father influences language development.

In addition to using the data from this study to build on language development skills in differently composed families, VanDam will use it to gain a better understanding of how hearing impairments influence a child’s learning and speech production.


  1. "By avoiding baby talk, dads may help kids acquire language." WSU News. Washington State University, May 2015. Web. 31 May 2015.
  2. "Speech and Language Developmental Milestones." NIH / National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD). US Department of Health & Human Services / National Institutes of Health, Sept. 2010. Web. 31 May 2015.