Talking to Babies

From a discussion about whether it inhibits language acquisition
for parents to use more than one term for things:

Velvet Jiang:

I have to disagree with the idea that you should use only one word for any given thing until a child is a certain age.

By the time my dd was five she knew several words in English and at least one in Chinese for many things in her world. If I said a new word and she wanted to know what it meant, she would ask. I don't even know how I could have made sure that she only heard one word for everything in her world. She would only be able to be around me and anyone else who was around her would have to be told what was acceptable and what wasn't for each object or idea.

I think you are underestimating the intelligence and adaptability of young children.


I still think you should use one word when trying to communicate with our little scientists.
Ren Allen:
Well THAT might just stunt their vocabulary!!! I don't speak in front of, or TO my children any differently than I do another human...THAT would be baby talk.

Of course they can't communicate the same at young ages, but that doesn't mean they don't understand!! Even if they don't understand me, I talk to them like anyone else...even as wee babsies.


Thanks for this thread, it has got me thinking...

My 2 1/2 yo daughter has been, for a few months, literally repeating all nouns. For instance, we were reading a book about animals, big beautiful pictures with just a few words for each. She would point, and I would say the name. Elephant, I would say, she would confidently say, ephalant. "Yes, that's right, it's an elephant." Satisfied, she would repeat, ephalant.

We'd look at the kangaroo with a joey in its pouch. The text read something like "the mother kangaroo has a special pocket for her baby." My daughter said "pocket" and pointed to the "baby". I then read "it's called a pouch and her baby is a joey." She took the word change in her stride, repeated the words pointing to the pictures.

Same thing happened with the snakes, when I started chatting that they were reptiles and a bit like lizards. She just 'understood' that there were many names for any one animal.

I must add, this same daughter told my 10 yo son to 'set the cake on fire' for my 39th birthday on Friday. He'd put the whole 39 candles on it too.

I have to admit, that before unschooling started to unfold in our lives, I would have 'made sure' that the pronunciation was right. I'm now confident, that as you said, Ren, even very young ones know what's going on. And I am continually reminding myself that I am not teaching the little ones to speak/walk/read, but that they are learning because that's what they are designed to do.

[Someone who probably will have changed her mind by now:]

I still think you should use one word when trying to communicate with our little scientists.
Pam Sorooshian:
Right - the "withhold information" form of unschooling?

I'm not sure, still, what you're basing the idea on, but it seems that it contradicts a very basic tenet of unschooling - surround the child with a swirling, wonderful, exciting, stimulating and rich environment and the child is naturally capable of learning from it.

[Original poster]:

They do not need two or three labels for an object thrown at them. It is difficult enough for a child under the age of five to learn...
Sandra Dodd:
It is not in the LEAST bit difficult for a child under the age of five to learn, and in fact those in fully bilingual situations pick up two different languages, including more than one word for objects in both languages, and they sort out the grammar and all, naturally.
[Original poster]:
Children (under the age of five) are like scientists from an alien world.
Sandra Dodd:
No, they are natural parts of their OWN world.
[Original poster]:
Not only have they never seen, touched or experienced anything in our world - they also have no way of communicating thoughts, feelings or desires with anything more then frustrated cries, screams and babbling.
Sandra Dodd:
There is touch. There is gaze. Have you never just looked into the eyes of your child, communicating? Have you not touched them soothingly, and felt them touch you back sometimes? They can tell the difference between an angry look and a gentle look.
[Original poster]:
While I did mention that I don't use baby words, my point was that while I don't see the use for baby words, I still think you should use one word when trying to communicate with our little scientists.
Sandra Dodd:
Right. Then you said you hadn't said that.
But English has MANY words for things. A sandwich can be a sandwich, a snack, dinner, a tuna sandwich or a grilled cheese. A dog can be a puppy or a guard dog or a pet or a beagle or a poodle. A flower might be a tulip or a gift. A gift might be a present, or a birthday present.
[Original poster]:
That is not to say that once children have a foundation of language they will discover new words for old objects.
Sandra Dodd:
When will you decide that they have a foundation of language? Because honestly, they have a foundation before they ever utter a word. They are starting to understand speech they hear before they use it intelligibly.

Sandra Dodd:

They are starting to understand speech they hear before they use it intelligibly.
Joyce Fetteroll:
Yup. I remember carrying Kathryn around when she a week shy of 1 nattering on about what I was doing. As I was looking all over for her hat I said "Where's you're hat?" not really expecting her to understand what I was saying but she not only understood but had watched someone put it up on the mantle at some point during the day and she pointed right at it.
Robyn Coburn:
I remember Jayn, at about 15-16 months, who was definitely speaking English but not always intelligible, falling and bumping her little head on the cement. She was crying and I picked her up and was saying, "Show me your head" to check for bumps or blood. In the midst of her crying the valiant soul lifted her hands and patted herself on the head "showing me" her head. Alas an inadvertent quiz!
Joyce Fetteroll:
And yet it just doesn't hold up against reality for babies. They aren't consciously thinking about making a connection between a sound (word) they hear and an object the way adults try to when learning a language. They just absorb it all and connections get made in the background as the brain does whatever it does.
Robyn Coburn:
I'm not sure that it always holds up for mothers either.

Before Jayn was born I subscribed to that "use the proper words and no baby talk" notion also - considering myself to be enlightened and knowledgeable. I was going to speak to her as if she were a rational being at all times.

The moment Jayn was placed on my chest and I stared into her surprised eyes, I instantly devolved into high pitched, itty-bitty baby talk. It was an instinctive heart-response.

Later, much later, I read about some study or other, that showed that this high pitched, baby talk inflection *was* a natural and appropriate maternal response to infants and *is* helpful to babies' developing hearing/cognition.
Here's a link to similar information:

From the intro: "Adults may feel silly when they talk to babies, but those babies will learn to speak sooner if adults talk to them like infants instead of like other adults, according to a study by Carnegie Mellon University Psychology Professor Erik Thiessen published in the March issue of the journal Infancy."

OTOH, using strange family words for some common things, can cause problems once out in wider society. My mother used the word "kiki" for all the female genital area. Why? I'll never know. But it was weird and embarrassing for me to learn from other kids that this was not a commonly used expression. Not to mention my confusion when I discovered that Kiki is a woman's name!

I remember an acrimonious argument with another girl my age, on the school bus, about whether the ovum was an "egg" or a "seed". I was not given the information that other people had other real words for things that were equally valid.

Other family words are less loaded. My mother had a word "ickyackymore" - it means the small reflection of the sun off a prism such as a watch face. I use it with Jayn, coupled with the information that this is our special made up word, that other people will not know it.

Another issue, probably not one that Unschoolers have in their lives, is that baby words are only acceptable for babies. One of the anti-baby talk arguments, as I recall, is that a child on becoming school age supposedly will suddenly be told to start using the proper words—too old for "doggy", only "dog". I just can't see Unschoolers attempting to impose or enforce notions of "school aged maturity" on our kids. Rather because our conversations with our children are authentic, they appear to have more mature vocabularies—based on my unscientific recollections of various postings over the years.

Julie (mother of Dmitri, 9 months):

Exactly my experience, Robyn. I knew that I spoke to my six-year-old friend in a pretty straightforward way, so I was really surprised to hear some of the high-pitched exaggerations I directed at Dmitri. For some reason, JEE-raf felt better than "giraffe" and "EL-ee-font" felt better than "elephant." Now I seem to say the "normal" word most of the time, but the old version makes an appearance now and then. I think I felt the words needed more of a texture for him be able to grab onto them at first. Now he seems to know what I'm saying more often.

It's fun to figure out some of the things I'm doing instinctively. For example, I'm in the habit of making different sounds when I need or want to move him. "Whhooo-ooop!" tends to be the sound effect for lifting him up high, and "Vvooo-voo" is often the sound I make when I'm scooching across the floor with him in tow. "Heeere we go!" is for when I'm putting him on the potty, and a descending-pitch "Aaaahh" often happens when we sit down. "Bup-bup-bup-bup...bupbupbupbupbupbup" seems to be used when I lift him up and then set him down into something, followed by a brief period of adjusting something--the sling, the straps on the carseat, his fleece suit for outside.

None of this was intentional, but it seems to me that the sounds provide advance notice about and structure for what we're doing. This seems to give him some measure of control over the process. He knows what's coming next, so he can voice his displeasure if he doesn't agree. Fun stuff!


I am in total agreement with the majority of posts here about language. I think speaking to children as *gasp* normal people is the best way to communicate. Of course, children also like to have fun, so we sing words, make up words, talk with funny accents and have FUN with language. Kids get it! You don't have to alter language to suit them.

When I am very tired I tell my children I am "tres fatique." It just sounds so much better than whining that I am tired - until we are in public (and I am looking weary) and Eva (nearly 4 yo) asks me in her concerned voice, "Mommy, are you really fat and gay?" It is too funny!

[Original poster]:

We still teach children language by the language we model. If we teach them baby words like tubby instead of bath it lowers their vocabulary. I am not talking about giving children more then one word for an object. I am talking about letting them naturally learn real words instead of having them learn made up words that don't mean anything, like tubby and drinky and all the other words that don't mean anything.
Dawn Adams:
Of course the words mean something, that's why kids use them. Language isn't about using specific words, it's about communicating. If a child is using tubby and getting across what tubby means to those she talks to, she using language well.

I'm not a fan of baby words either and didn't use them but can't for the life of me see the harm in them if they work for a child.

Later note from Sandra:
This page is old. In 2021 I came to brush it up, and I have added (below) a sound file of "Rubber Ducky," a grammy-nominated song from 1970, about Ernie and his duck, in his tubby.
—Sandra Dodd, Sesame Street fan,
English language defender

Sandra Dodd:

It is not in the LEAST bit difficult for a child under the age of five to learn, and in fact those in fully bilingual situations pick up two different languages, including more than one word for objects in both languages, and they sort out the grammar and all, naturally.
Robyn L. Coburn:
That was the idea that worried me also in that post.

Having the idea that "learning is difficult" in general could be a barrier to Unschooling with joy.

Children (under the age of five) are like scientists from an alien world.
Sandra Dodd:
No, they are natural parts of their OWN world.
Robyn L. Coburn:
I believe that idea, the visiting alien idea, is one that is mostly useful as an aid to assist impatient or pushy parents (probably not Unschoolers) to be more compassionate—an analogy rather than a true metaphor. One thing that seems to unite Unschoolers is acceptance of their children's individual timetables.

Meg wrote:

This "teach one word" discussion reminds me of when my son was learning to recognize numbers.

We went for a walk and he noticed the numbers on houses. He was amazed that a 2 could have a loop or not and still be a 2, or that a 3 could have a pointy bit or be all curved and still be a 3. And a 4, my goodness! It could look like a triangle or not, and still be a 4! Wow!

We ended up talking about what was the essential (and yes, I defined that word for him and we used it in our discussion) shape of each number and how much variation could take place and yet we could still recognize it as that number.

And that led to noticing differences in cars, dogs, chairs, but we still knew that they were, in fact, cars, dogs and chairs. Then I told him about a philosopher named Plato who wondered about this very same thing—the Pure Form of a thing.

We came home and looked at different fonts on the computer. He saw that letters could be played with this way, too.

Pretty cool discussion to have with a 3yo!

"Rubber Duckie," written by Jeff Moss, arranged by Joe Raposo, sung by Ernie (voiced by Jim Henson)

Partial lyrics:

Every day when I make my way to the tubby
I find a little fellow who's cute and yellow and chubby
That's nice writing, with internal rhymes, a rhythm that exists even without the music, and... I think the idea that "tubby" isn't a real word is sufficiently neutralized.

Tone of Voice and Joy Young Children on parents, children, and words