Webinar: Latinx Dads Play a Key Role in Infant Dual Language Development

It’s easy to assume that changing one’s voice tone and inflection, cadence, pronunciation, and word choice for infants and toddlers is a lot of nonsensical “baby talk.” In reality, most of this communication style falls under “parentese,” and its use by both mothers and fathers is critical to cognitive development and language acquisition. That’s the message UnidosUS’s education team sought to get across this month during a webinar titled, “Father Involvement in Infant Dual Language Development.”  

 “We know that infant brain activity is actually enhanced when listening to parentese vs. standard speech,” said the event’s featured presenter, Dr. Naja Ferjan Ramírez, a language acquisition researcher at the University of Washington, who gave a review of the research on infant dual language development, as well as findings from her own most recent reports. We try not to use the term baby talk because it has a negative connotation.”  

Parentese is a speech register used by most adults in Western societies when interacting with very small children. Still, there is very little research on the paternal use of parentese, explained Ferjan Ramírez. The tendency to research maternal usage of this speech register is largely due to stereotypes of women as the main caregivers and fathers as the breadwinners. But in recent decades, domestic roles have changed dramatically, and more so during COVID-19 pandemic which has forced many families to alter their lifestyles and childrearing practices.

Understanding Paternal Roles in Language Development 

Ferjan Ramirez relied on inputs from 37 two-parent Latinx bilingual households, some of which she found through the UnidosUS Affiliate Network, to record and analyze the mothers’ and fathers’ use of “parentese.” Within that cohort, the families were to be socially and economically diverse, and have infants ranging in age from four to 22 months.  

The study began with a background survey to learn about the family’s basic characteristics, such as the number of children. Then another survey was given to fathers asking questions about their roles in childrearing activities such as changing diapers or reading to the children.  

“Most of us would agree that fathers do matter for children’s cognitive development, so if they matter for children’s cognitive development, we should study dads, and we should study their parentese in particular because that is one of the key ingredients for language development,” Ferjan Ramírez said.  

The second part of the study explored attitudes and beliefs around language development, as well as actual recordings of parents interacting with their infants and toddlers throughout a weekend when both parents were home.

Many of the fathers surveyed assumed that the mothers were the ones who engaged in this so-called “baby talk,” and some even called it annoying. But the findings countered that. Both men and women spoke about the same amount of parentese, even though the recordings noted women tend to be chattier and use more words, as did men with more extensive household and child care roles. At the same time, Ferjan Ramírez found that the overall amount of parentese parents produced was associated with their knowledge of child language development.   

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“We really should worry about the quality of the interactions, the quality of speech in this case,” she said, noting that the more parentese spoken, the stronger the child’s cognitive and linguistic abilities will be.  

And since children develop quickly between infancy and the age of five or six when they are usually speaking in full sentences, language is causally implicated in just about everything a child heading off to kindergarten does, from social and emotional development to preliterary skills, math, and problem-solving.  

That’s why we’re so concerned about it. Virtually everything a child does relates to language,” said Ferjan Ramírez. “When we go from this transformation from crying to learning how to read, what we want to answer is how do they do this? How do they accomplish this in such a short period of time, and some of them master two languages, so what is it that kids need to learn language effectively during this time?”   

Promoting Early Literacy 

At the end of the webinar, UnidosUS Director of Early Childhood Education Dr. Robert Stechuk asked to discuss the correlation between parentese and early literacy.  

“For decades, we’ve known that children with strong vocabularies tend to have an easier time learning to read,” he said. “Does the present evidence on parentese support the conclusion that parentese is causal in vocabulary acquisition? Does parentese result in improved vocabulary for children? 

“What we know is that babies who hear parentese in their homes have bigger vocabularies at the age of two, and that is true for monolingual and bilingual babies,” Ferjan Ramírez responded.  

When it comes to bilingual babies, she said their vocabulary in each language is correlated to the amount of parentese they hear in each language spoken to them. Additionally, some interventional studies designed to enhance parental use of parentese showed that the children of parents who have been coached in parentese have significantly higher vocabularies than those children whose parents have not been coached.  

And while educating parents on parentese is critical, so too is reminding them of the impact of non-verbal communication, which grabs the baby’s attention and establishes bonding, affirmed Ferjan Ramírez. “It’s eye gaze, it’s the back and forth that can be in gestures or pointing. It’s really about attuning parents to looking at their child and watching how they respond…I think really you want to talk to parents about all the cool stuff that babies can do, such as, have a preference for parentese, and distinguish between two languages from birth.” 

That question of the verbal verses the non-verbal also raises questions about the importance of reading to children. Noting a trend in in publishing more Spanish-language children’s books to accommodate for a growing Latino population, Stechuk asked Ferjan Ramírez if she had any tips for promoting multilingual reading to young children.   

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One of her tips was that even if a parent can’t find a book in their home language or doesn’t feel confident in their own reading skills, they can still use books as a visual tool to encourage interaction and even the use of parentese.  

“For infants, it’s really not that important to even read the words that are on the page. It’s more about creating a story and having that back and forth in parentese,” said Ferjan Ramírez.  

Babies Know 

Following the event, Stechuk told ProgressReport.co that the impact of parentese shows just how awake and aware humans really are, even before they’re fully walking and talking.  

“Babies prefer to hear parentese, and it promotes their language. Essentially, babies know what they need, he concluded.  

-Author Julienne Gage is an Unidos US Senior Web Content Manager and Editor of ProgressReport.co.