If you were to ask a group of Latinx dads if they speak in any special way to their babies, they might quickly tell you that they don’t “baby talk” their little ones. Like many fathers, they might even say that they speak to their children like little adults to help them learn to talk.
Turns out, that’s not necessarily so. According to a recent study, Latinx fathers actually do speak to their infants in “parentese,” that unique style of speech known and loved by babies everywhere. And that’s a very good thing, says Dr. Naja Ferjan Ramírez, assistant professor in Linguistics at the University of Washington, because such speech supports the babies’ language learning and brain building. Mostly, dads don’t know that.
The importance of speaking with infants in this special way is backed up by a large body of research showing how much impact caregivers’ social interactions have on babies’ cognitive and linguistic development. In speaking parentese—pitching their voices higher, slowing their speech and exaggerating their intonation—caregivers emphasize language for babies in a way that tells them, “This is for you, I’m speaking to you,” and elicit the kind of call-and-response “turn-taking” feedback loop that’s the keystone to the child’s language development.
Recent studies highlight the important role fathers play in their infants’ language learning, but Ferjan Ramírez has observed a persistent gap in the literature concerning the contributions of mothers and fathers. That gap is especially notable, she says, when it comes to infants of bilingual and culturally diverse background, such as Latinx babies.
In what Ferjan Ramírez and her fellow researchers believe is the first study comparing the amount of mother and father parentese in a bilingual context, 37 families with bilingual, Latinx infants were set up with special Language Environment Analysis (LENA) recording devices. Often referred to as a “talk pedometer,” the LENA recording device captures and analyzes the back-and-forth talk among children and their caregivers, without identifying individual words.
Researchers asked the parents to put the devices on their babies on a typical weekend when both parents were home and not working. The device then “listened to” and analyzed when language was directed at the child and by whom. Prior to the listening sessions, the researchers surveyed the fathers about how often they performed specific parental responsibilities, such as changing diapers and singing to their children, plus additional questions on language development.
Once the LENA recordings had been analyzed, the results were unequivocal: Every father spoke parentese. Both mothers and fathers spoke directly to the children in Spanish and English; language-mixing was common in both, and all the fathers engaged in the parentese that elicited turn-taking and infant responses.
“I’m impressed that every single dad in the study used parentese,” says Ferjan Ramírez. “This is something we’ve seen in non-Latinx dads and now we’ve observed it in our study of Latinx dads too. The proportion of how much they use parentese varies from family to family, but they all use it.”
Ferjan Ramírez, lead author on the article, Habla Conmigo, Daddy! Fathers’ Language Input in North American Bilingual Latinx Families, which details this research, has investigated infant language-acquisition for years and has become acutely aware that most research thus far has focused exclusively on mothers. Traditionally, fathers have been considered “secondary caregivers” who were less involved in childrearing and often not on the research radar. But the world is changing in countless ways and two of those ways that Ferjan Ramírez has her eye on are the increasing involvement of fathers with their children and the demographic shifts in the U.S. which predict that Latinx families will account for more than 30 percent of the population by 2050.
“In some states, like California, more than 50 percent of the kindergarten classes within the next 10 years is going to be of Latinx descent,” she says. “So, we need to expand our understanding of bilingual language acquisition, and we need to develop a better knowledge of the social differences with Latinx families—if there are stricter gender roles or different attitudes toward the role of father, for example—so that whatever interventions we design are culturally informed and sensitive.”
“Also,” she says with a laugh, “I have a personal connection to this situation. My husband is Dominican, and I’ve been observing Latinx families from the ‘inside’ for years.”
One of her primary observations is that two important cultural beliefs in Latinx culture—machismo and familismo—are at odds with each other, particularly when it comes to men’s interactions with their children. Machismo is the cultural view that values strict gender roles and defines men as being strong, masculine and dominant, encouraging an authoritarian style of parenting and less direct involvement with their babies. Many scholars and members of the Latinx community suggest that this portrayal of Latinx fathers is outdated and inaccurate, but it does persist—even in the way men sometimes view themselves. However, as Ferjan Ramírez has observed personally and in her research, machismo is trumped again and again by the more-abiding value of familismo, the commitment to family as a source of loyalty, closeness, connection and strength.
“So, the main message we got from our study is that, yes, these dads are very much involved in and part of their babies’ lives,” she says, “and they adjust their speech in their interactions with their infants.”
One remarkable, though maybe not completely surprising, aspect of this and other studies of fathers’ interaction with their infants is the ratio of speech babies hear from their mothers compared to their fathers. On average, babies hear two to three times more child-directed speech (meaning language directed to the baby rather than just overheard) from women than from men. In this study, Ferjan Ramírez, et al, discovered that infants heard on average 18,545 adult words per day: 11,954 from women and 6,591 from men, or an average of 50 .4 percent fewer words from men. Fathers produced on average 43 percent less parentese than mothers, and the higher the family’s income, the more parentese both parents used. The biggest gap between the amount of language babies hear from mothers and fathers is when the infant is the youngest.
“We’re not 100 percent sure why that is,” she says. “It may have to do with just the behavioral differences between moms and dads, where dads tend to be more energetic and playful and prefer physical activities little babies can’t engage in yet. There’s also a whole literature on the hormonal differences that exist between moms and dads at this age, so there might also be a biological reason for this. Knowing that is really meaningful for me because if I design an intervention, I will want engage fathers when the babies are really little.”
The study also found that infants whose fathers who were more involved in child care responsibilities tended to hear more daddy-talk, though not necessarily more parentese, with one exception: Researchers saw a strong relationship between fathers’ use of parentese and their awareness of its importance. The more they know about the difference it makes, the more fathers use infant-directed speech. This positive relationship between use of child-directed speech and the parent’s knowledge, beliefs and attitudes around child development has been well-documented in English-speaking mothers, but Ferjan Ramírez and her fellow researchers say theirs is the first study they’re aware of that demonstrates such an association in fathers.
“This is something I experienced over and over again when I spoke with parents (not just in this study),” she says. “The dads will say, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s how my wife talks, and I don’t know why. It’s annoying. I’m going to talk to my baby like they’re a grownup because I want them to learn language. Then, when you record them, there it is: Parentese.
“When you explain to them what ‘turn-taking’ means and how much it matters to their child’s development, they’ll say, ‘Oh. OK, I think I can do this.’ And then we say, ‘Here’s the recording: You already do. Now let’s think of additional day-to-day situations and routines where you may not yet use it, but you could.’”
Understanding these dynamics matters to linguistics scholars like Ferjan Ramírez because the knowledge will help shape the type of parent coaching interventions that she creates for her own lab, the Language Development and Processing (LDP) Lab, and the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences (I-LABS), both at the University of Washington. As the demographic shifts now at play in U.S. society continue their seismic activity, fathers increasingly will be viewed not as secondary caregivers, but as parents—and fluent fatherly parentese will be an increasingly important part of infants’ learning and language landscape.
Dr. Naja Ferjan Ramírez is a Distinguished Professor with the University of Washington’s Language Acquisition and Multilingualism Endowment, which provided funding for the study.
Ferjan Ramírez directs the Language Development and Processing (LDP) Lab at the University of Washington, part of the Department of Linguistics. By studying families of diverse backgrounds, the lab’s focus is to examine how infants learn one, two, or multiple languages through interacting with the world.
K.C. Compton worked as a reporter, editor and columnist for newspapers throughout the Rocky Mountain region for 20 years before moving to the Kansas City area as an editor for Mother Earth News. She has been in Seattle since 2016, enjoying life as a freelance and contract writer and editor.