"Motherese": How Adults Support Children's Language Learning
When adults are helping infants learn to talk, it is remarkable how much of this "help" comes naturally and unconsciously. Take the case of a mother engaged in face-to-face play with a six-month-old child.
- The mother gazes into the child's face and raises the pitch of her voice to a high register.
- She makes swooping changes from low to high, from soft to loud.
- She exaggerates consonant sounds, and stretches out vowel sounds.
- She speaks in sentences with few words and simple syntax.
- She leaves pauses in her utterances: she speaks and waits, speaks and waits, as if she were inviting the baby into a conversation and showing him where to slot his utterances.
In short, she is speaking "Motherese" (Newport, Gleitman, and Gleitman, 1977).
Motherese reminds you of the way a tennis coach might show a neophyte how to swing a racket. She exaggerates the twisting of the body, the gaze straight ahead toward an unseen opponent, the arm swinging on around after the ball has been hit. So, too, the adult speaking to the child exaggerates the connection of emotion to speech through the dramatic swoops and pauses of her voice, her brightened eyes, and smiling face. Her turn-taking with the child is greatly slowed down, as if to invite the child to take his part in the conversations (Stern, 2004). The mother says "Hey!" and smiles, then waits. Says "Hey!" again and smiles, then waits. Then when the baby finally coos, the mother smiles more brightly, then says "Hey, yourself!" and then waits...
As we shall see, adults hold scaffolded conversations with older children, too, that help them learn language. And while Motherese is usually spoken by people unaware that they are doing it, preschool teachers and parents can be trained to use certain kinds of scaffolded conversations with children that help them learn language.
Parents and adults can help children to talk by:
- Talking to them, because the more adults talk, the more words and constructions children hear;
- Talking about things, because the more we describe things and extend our speech about things, the more names for things and the more kinds of logical structures between ideas children learn;
- Using rich language, language that recounts what happened in the past, what will happen if something else takes place, and what we look forward to in the future, because these ways of talking give children a more supple grasp on the way language is used to describe experience and support thinking;
- Encouraging them, because the more we encourage children, the more they will say and the more confident and inquisitive they will be.
© ______ 2005, Allyn & Bacon, an imprint of Pearson Education Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The reproduction, duplication, or distribution of this material by any means including but not limited to email and blogs is strictly prohibited without the explicit permission of the publisher.
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