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Child-directed Speech

An imperfect model for language learners?

Critics of the innatist view of language acquisition have argued that the role of other people in assisting a child to learn language is given insufficient emphasis. We know that adult conversation is filled with hesitations, slips of the tongue, repetitions, and so on. It therefore provides an imperfect model for the developing child. However, research shows that adults actually make many modifications to their speech when talking to young children (Ringler, 1981; Cameron-Faulkner, Lieven and Tomasello, 2003; Field, 2004:54-56). These modifications appear designed to assist the child with language learning and this type of modified talk is known as child-directed speech (CDS).

CDS by any other name?

Child-directed speech has been variously labeled over the years. Baby-talk is a traditional label. Motherese was in favor for some time but it has largely been discarded owing to gender stereotyping and the fact that caregivers other than mothers are observed to employ distinctive speech and language patterns when speaking to young children. This led some to use the rather clumsy term caregiver speech. Parentese has also now largely been abandoned. So, in recent years the preferred term has been child-directed speech. However, even this term does not appear to be fully satisfactory, as the modifications include, for example, alterations to voice and grammar. This is why this article appears under the general heading of ‘communication’ rather than just speech. We are really discussing child-directed communication strategies.

Characteristics of child-directed speech

It has long been known that caregivers demonstrate a style of speaking to their babies that is uncommonly different to their usual adult conversation (see Slobin, 1967; Drach, 1969; Foulkes, Docherty, Watt, 2005). This is also true of those who have worked with young infants for some time. In general, child-directed speech appears to be an unconscious act: caregivers can often be surprised when their speech modifications are pointed out to them.

Researchers have investigated this so-called child-directed speech and discovered that many cultures have some form of baby talk (Kuhl, Andruski, Chistovich, Chistovich, Kozhevnikova, Ryskina, Stolyarova, Sundberg and Lacerda, 1997). Various studies have found child-directed speech in speakers of English, German, Russian, Swedish and Mandarin Chinese (Talaris Research Institute, 2005).

  • Up to the child’s first birthday the caregiver, tends to speak to them in monologues, i.e. long stretches of talk that require little feedback or involvement from the child other than their continued attention.
  • From about eighteen months of age the child is addressed in a grammatically simple manner about a restricted number of topics. The topics are typically limited to here-and-now concrete concepts, e.g. talking about what the child is currently doing or looking at.
  • From about two years of age, words and phrases are repeated to the child over and over again: the caregiver never seems to say something just once. In addition, an exaggerated intonation pattern is used together with a higher than usual pitch.

Gender differences

There appear to be some gender differences in the use of child-directed speech (Davidson and Snow, 1996; Kaplan, Dungan and Zinser, 2004). In general, males speaking to young children tend to use more Wh-questions (who, what, when, where, why, how) than females. Wh-questions are linguistically more demanding because the child is required to construct a so-called lexical response rather than repeat the adult’s structure or simply give a non-verbal response. [Children begin to develop understanding of wh-questions between 2;00-3;00 years of age (Locke and Beech, 2005)].

In contrast, females tend to be more talkative – producing more, and longer, utterances.

Is it really necessary?

Recent studies have argued that child-directed speech makes language acquisition easier for infants (Thiessen, Hill and Saffran, 2005). However, an argument against the necessity of child-directed speech is that other studies have shown that children appear to learn language just as well when their primary carers do not use child-directed speech: it appears that there are world cultures that do not use child-directed speech (Schieffelin and Ochs, 1987). Further, it has been suggested that we have underestimated how much language learning occurs through children listening to other adults conversing with each other rather than through their own direct interaction with adults.


Cameron-Faulkner, T., Lieven, E. V. M. and Tomasello, M. (2003) ‘A construction-based analysis of child directed speech’ Cognitive Science 27, 843-873.

Davidson, R. G. and Snow, C. E. (1996) ‘Five-year-olds’ interactions with fathers versus mothers’ First Language 16, 223-242.

Drach, K. (1969) ‘The language of the parent: a pilot study’ Working Paper Number 4: The Structure of Linguistic Input to Children University of California Language Behavior Research Laboratory, Berkeley.

Field, J. (2004) Psycholinguistics: The Key Concepts London: Routledge.

Foulkes, P., Docherty, G.J. and Watt, D. (2005) ‘Phonological variation in child-directed speech’ Language 81, 1, 177-206.

Kaplan, P. S., Dungan, J. K. and Zinser, M. C. (2004) ‘Infants of chronically depressed mothers learn in response to male, but not female, infant-directed speech’ Developmental Psychology, 50, 2, 140-148.

Kuhl, P. K., Andruski, J. E., Chistovich, I. A., Chistovich, L. A., Kozhevnikova, E. V., Ryskina, V. L., Stolyarova, E. I., Sundberg, U. and Lacerda, F. (1997) ‘Cross-language analysis of phonetic units in language addressed to infants’ Science 277, 684-686.

Locke, A. and Beech, M. (2005) Teaching Talking: A Screening and Intervention Programme for Children with Speech and Language Difficulties (2nd edn) London: NFER Nelson.

Ringler, N.M. (1981) ‘The development of language and how adults talk to children’ Infant Mental Health 2, 71-83.

Schieffelin, B.B. and Ochs, E. (1987) Language Socialization Across Cultures Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Slobin, D. (1967) A Field Manual for Cross-cultural Study of the Acquisition of Communicative Competence Berkeley: University of California.

Talaris Research Institute (2005) Speaking Parentese [WWW] Accessed 17.02.2006.

Thiessen, E.D., Hill, E.A., Jenny, R. and Saffran, J.R. (2005) ‘Infant-directed speech facilitates word segmentation’ Infancy 7, 1.