Child Directed Speech: What is it and how can it help my child?

Have you ever noticed that when talking to your son or daughter, your language is different to the way you might speak to other adults?

As a parent/caregiver, you are one of the most influential people in your child’s life. You are the first person they hear, see, and interact with every single day.

As a result, this makes you the most vital person in influencing their development. Young children are impressionable and will often look to those around them for support in development as they grow. This same principle can be applied more focally to their linguistic development. This then might raise the question for you: what can I do to help?

This blog post explores Child Directed Speech (CDS) and how its use by a parent/caregiver can help aid a child’s language acquisition.

What is CDS?

Sometimes referred to as ‘babytalk’ or ‘infant directed speech’, CDS is considered by some as its own form of register. Register simply means formality, such as, formal versus informal.

Using CDS suggests a different way of speaking depending on who the recipient is (who, in this case, is the child).

IMAGINE THIS:

You are at work. You are in a meeting, colleagues sat beside you. You must present a new idea for the company you are working for.

Instead of talking formally and coming across as a professional, you use expletives and slang and talk about inappropriate subjects for the workplace.

Doesn’t seem right, does it? This is because we, as speakers, know that certain formalities aren’t appropriate depending on who we are talking to and what situation we are in.

Much like how we know our use of language needs to adapt to a given situation, our speech also needs to adapt when talking to children. This is because children learn in different ways and it is likely that they will struggle to comprehend the complexity of adult language.

The aim of CDS is to focus on how adults alter their language when speaking to a child to meet the child’s linguistic needs, ensuring that they are engaged to full capacity.

Researchers have explored CDS for many years, looking at how parents adapt their language to their children and what effect this can have on a child’s linguistic development.

It can be argued that because it is unlike standard adult language use, this causes more of a hindrance to a child’s language development as opposed to benefitting it: but is this true? Not necessarily, because children progress and develop as they grow.

This means that an adult modelling language for the child provides a basis of language for them to build on later in life! Hart and Risely (2003) showed a prominent pattern between the number of words a child hears and their IQ and later educational attainment. This demonstrates that you as the parent/caregiver can help by exposing your child to more language, and it is likely to benefit their education later in life.

Key features of CDS

The use of CDS is distinctively different to Standard language use and might seem strange if used in adult conversation.

As you can probably tell from reading the list below, the use of these features in an adult conversation might not seem fitting and will probably result in some funny looks from your friends or colleagues. 

The key features are:

  • Higher or melodic pitch
  • More frequent and longer pauses
  • Slower and clearer speech
  • Repetition
  • Simpler sentences
  • More questions (including also providing the answer)
  • Use of diminutives (words that suggest a smaller version of what is being described, often with a suffix e.g. ‘doggie’)
  • Use of nouns rather than pronouns e.g. ‘Mummy is going to fetch a drink’, also using the 3rd person.
  • More frequent use of plural pronouns, rather than singular pronouns e.g. ‘they’ instead of ‘Ben and Emma’)
  • Politeness features e.g. turn taking and use of manners

You might recognise some of these features as being similar to the language that young children are already surrounded by – the sing song rhythm of nursery rhymes, naming objects and establishing what is what, asking questions to explore the world around them.

How can we model language for our children?

  1. Expansion: when an adult develops the child’s utterance to make it more grammatically correct
    Child: Me drink
    Adult: Yes, you have a drink.
  2. Recasts: the grammatically incorrect utterance of a child is spoken back to them but in the corrected form.
    Child: Doggie wants play.
    Adult: The doggie wants to play.
  3. Mitigated imperatives: an instruction given as a suggestion rather than a command e.g. “Would you move that toy for me?” or “Please eat your dinner”.

This is a video of CDS in action:

Did you hear how the adult used raised intonation when asking questions? Did you notice how the adult sometimes answered her own questions? Did you note how she often repeated what she said? Yes! And that’s because she was using Child Directed Speech.

Along with CDS features, you can also help your child by following ‘OWLing’, a concept taken from The Hanen Program (Manolson, 1992). When talking to your child, these are the suggested steps you should follow when awaiting their response:

Observe

Wait

Listen

Just because your child doesn’t respond as quickly as you might first expect, it doesn’t mean they don’t know the answer or what to say.

Some children take longer to comprehend what is being asked of them, so giving the child time to process what you as the adult have said might result in a more successful response. However, responding for them or rushing into an answer could make them feel uneasy and unsure that they fully understand.

Giving your child time to speak also means that you have time to communicate through body language and gestures – this is just as important as words! Doing this, along with the key features of CDS, will allow for your child to become fully engaged and immersed in their linguistic environment.

As you can see, there are many ways that you, the parent/caregiver, can aid your child’s language development through using some of the named features. Simply tweaking your own language can have a significant impact and engage your child linguistically.

Next time you’re speaking to a child, see if you can spot any of these features in your own language – or maybe even give some a try!

Sammie Peach

Mable Speech Therapy Technician