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You held your breath for nine long months (give or take) and imagined a thousand things you would say to your precious little bundle of joy when it arrived. And then he is placed in your unsure arms. You stare at the tiny being, holding it like the most precious fragile china doll ever made and you are speechless. How do you even talk to this doll-person who is completely oblivious to the presence of his most ardent fans?
For some parents, talking to their infants comes easy, they are naturals at it. But for most parents, “Parentese” is a language they have to learn to speak in due course of their first-born’s life. Speaking to an infant is like talking to a plant; you have no clue what it’s thinking or whether it’s even getting what you are saying, but a thousand experiments have proven already that they (children and plants both) imbibe a lot of what’s spoken to them. So, go ahead and get your “Parentese” on.
But how? Well, here’s what I have learnt so far (of course with a hell lot experimentation and trial and error in between):
- Skip the Baby-Talk: “Parentese” is not the same as baby-talk. Skip the “goo-goos” and “gagas” in favor of real words. An occasional “coochie-poochie” is fine, but its better to use sentences like you would use when talking to an adult. “Hi baby, how are you?” is a good start 🙂 It’s easy to get carried away with the baby’s cooing and mimic it, but one has to remember that those coos are mostly the little ones’ attempts to form sounds for actual language later on. Our mimicking it back makes it just an endless cycle of coos with no injection of real words, which is the onus of the parents to teach.
- Get The Inner Drama Queen Out: Use real words and sentences, no doubt, but talk in a sing-song, high-pitched voice with exaggerated facial expressions and gestures. Also, speak at a slower pace than you, normally, would do when speaking with an adult. Although the pitch, the wild gestures and the sing-song voice come naturally when talking to a baby (it’s an evolutionary thing), but most people have a tendency to suppress it. “Hiiiiiii baabyyyy, How aaaaaaaarrrrrreeeeeeee youuuuu?” sounds outright over-dramatic and ridiculous! But stick with it, give that inner drama queen a chance. Babies are delighted by it and once you have gotten past your inhibitions, the very fact that it’s so funny will bring a smile to your face making the communication a lively one.
- Converse, Don’t Dictate: Admit it, talking to a baby is boring, especially in the initial months, when there is no visual or verbal acknowledgement from them. So, it’s very easy to get into a narrative mode as if you are dictating a note to your secretary “I am cooking dinner, I am chopping onions.” and over a period of time, it gets so boring that you just stop talking altogether. Instead, just try and have a conversation. It doesn’t matter that you will have to speak both peoples’ lines, but its more fun anyway and chances are once you get a hang of it, you will stick with it. “I am cooking dinner. See? (Pause and Show) Here, do you know what this is? (Pause)….This is called an onion. Look how Ma is chopping it. Chop! Chop! Chop! Chop! (Pause) Do you like onions, sonny?”…and so on and so forth. Considering that I am not very talkative, this is something I had difficulty with. I did not really “speak” to sonny till he could utter a few words and make some non-verbal gestures. But once we got the hang of it, well, that’s another story!
- Don’t Dumb It Down: This is for when the child crosses “infant-hood” and has a fair grasp on the spoken language of his family. In an attempt to make it easier on our kids, we, parents have a tendency to dumb down the words to “KidSpeak”. Be it “Elle” for “Elephant”, “Hippo” for “Hippopotamus” or very simple 2-3 word sentences, we go that extra mile so that our kids don’t have to. But this is derogatory for their language development. Using regular words is very important. And IT IS okay to use long sentences as long as your explanation is age appropriate. Explaining up, rather than dumbing it down is the key to a good vocabulary later on.
- Don’t Forget Grammar and Pronunciation: Kids, when they start speaking, make all sort of grammatical errors and mispronunciations, which are, oh-so-adorable! (Sonny’s current ones include: “Oh, I doing nuffing. It’s nuffing.” when I ask “What are you doing?”) It’s easy for parents to forget their own sentence formations thanks to these cute speech patterns. Though it’s perfectly fine not to try and correct the kids’, it’s important that parents don’t use the same incorrect speech patterns. Instead they should use the correct sentences every single time, so that the kids can observe and make corrections to their own when they are good and ready. (We are still working on this one 😉 )
- Listen, Acknowledge, Repeat: Language development is as much about speaking as it is about listening. The pauses between the sentences are there for a good reason. It gives the kids the validation that their opinions matter and the pauses are places where they get to interject and speak their minds. Initially, it will just be some babbling interspersed with a few real words, then the amount of real words will increase over time. Encourage this always. Listen, acknowledge, repeat (of course replacing the babble with the right words) and continue the conversation. Let the child speak his mind and do listen intently till he stops talking (though it will feel like an eternity!) and acknowledge his opinions just like you would for an adult. That’s all there is to a good “Parentese” conversation 🙂
So there you have it, my take on how to get the conversations going with your little ones. Of course, it has been a long time since sonny was just a tiny blob and I no longer use that funny sing-song drama voice, but what I have learnt over the course of his growing up is immense. The conversations now flow more naturally (Sonny is a talker!) and I enjoy our conversations and his imagination to the fullest (though not always!).
So newbie parents, don’t you worry! Get your “Parentese” on and you will be conversing like a pro in no time.