Using singsong speech to make your little one smile offers many benefits, says Alison Jean Lester.

“I used to make my living speaking like a child. I did English voice dubbing for popular Japanese cartoons. I was the voice of the young hero, Takato, in anime television series Digimon Tamers, and a range of excited, vocal cord-lacerating little chaps in the manga series Bakusō Kyōdai Let’s & Go.

In another Japanese manga series, Super Yo-Yo, I voiced a boy and his older sister. I spent so many hours in the studio keeping up with the producer’s punishing schedule that I could switch seamlessly and produce their conversations without fumbling.

My experience with acting and singing certainly helped me do well in dubbing. But my experience in mothering did more. I’ve always done funny voices for my children. They’re adults now, but I still do it! It was part of how we bonded, and is woven into the fabric of the relationship that is ours and ours alone.

The first funny voice I ever did for them was, of course, simply baby talk. This is also known as “motherese” or “parentese”. It’s now been proven that babies need us to do this, not just because it tickles them, but because it builds their brains.

Many parents naturally raise their pitch, speak more slowly, and elongate their words when interacting with their infants. Perhaps they’ve noticed it helps them get their baby’s attention. What it also does is stimulate the areas of the brain their baby needs for language development.

“It’s not the number of words babies hear that speeds the growth of their vocabulary, but the way in which the words they hear are said, and in what context.”

I’m bemused by parents who tell me they’ve always spoken to their children in their normal tone of voice, as if baby talk were condescending and unlikely to lead to language development.

A study done in 2014 showed that it’s in fact not the number of words babies hear that speeds the growth of their vocabulary, but the way in which the words they hear are said, and in what context. Being spoken to in regular adult speech can’t compete with ‘parentese’, especially when the conversations are one-to-one. Alone time with a babbling grown-up wins by a long shot.

So, what happens if you don’t know how to speak baby talk? Admittedly, it’s very hard for some people. After I made a living doing cartoon voices, I ran a communication coaching business. One of my clients, who wanted to be more persuasive over the phone, really struggled to vary her tone of voice, and sounded dull and unmotivated as a result.

Assuming that she was more animated at home after work, I lent her one of my children’s books to read. But she couldn’t give the characters in the book any voice but her own. No matter how much she wanted to and how hard she tried. It won’t surprise you to learn that she’d never been read to as a child herself.

When we don’t speak baby talk to our babies, or talk like little children ― or animals, or robots ― to our little children, we limit not only the speed of their language grasp but also our own flexibility, our own persuasiveness and our own ability to get attention. Or in my case, to make a living in the cartoon business!

Speaking of which, one day in the middle of my dubbing career, when I had already done dozens of voices and was juggling many others, my kids were watching some Japanese anime. At one point they said, “Mum! That’s you!”. I listened, and asked, “Really?”. They looked at me like I was crazy, of course it was me! And they were right. They’d started learning about my many voices in the womb ― the voice on TV was simply speaking the ‘motherese’ they’d known all their lives.”

Alison Jean Lester, mum to Linus, 19, and Kiri, 22, is the author of the novels Lillian on Life and Yuki Means Happiness. Now based in England, she lived in Singapore for 17 years, till 2016.

Photo: iStock

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