Parentese: baby-directed talk in sign language
Parentese (known as "motherese", an older term) is defined as "a type of baby-directed talk or 'baby talk' which many parents use to communicate with their infants." It is found in many cultures around the world. And, of course, also found in signed languages.
In spoken languages, a parent speaks parentese to the infant in a high-pitched voice along with a slower rhythm. Speech is clear and has exaggerated intonation with longer vowel production. Words or phrases are repeated. the parent pauses long between sentences or phrases to allow the child to think.
In addition, the parent expands what the child says. E.g. child, "cat." Parent, "Yes, it is a cat." "The cat likes you, too." "The cat wants to be friend with you." She/he may use facial expression, manual gesture (e.g. pointing), and prolonged eye contact.
Studies show that infants prefer baby talk opposed to adult talk. Many people think that this type of talk is "dumbing" the child down; however, study shows that babies learn language more efficiently. Although, many parents do adult talk with their infants, which may benefit too.
As a native ASL signer, I find myself talking naturally in parentese in American Sign Language (ASL) with my baby "Juli". But, I also found myself using adult talk in ASL with her, usually when everyday life topics are not concerned to her. E.g. I explained what I was doing on the Internet, seeking information on a product to buy.
Similar to some characteristics of speech parentese, the following typical characteristics of parentese in sign language are:
- clear signing
- exaggerated movements of the signed words
- exaggerated facial grammar and facial expression.
- repetition of signed words or phrases.
- expanding what the child says
- pauses between sentences or phrases.
- simple, short sentences
- extensive use of pointing
- prolonged eye contact and gaze
- using cinematic effects, transformations, and other effects (e.g. flying airplane turned into tickling ILY).
Affective vs grammatical facial expression
Non-manual grammar is highly integrated with the manual system. Two functions in facial expression in American Sign Language are: affective and grammatical (or linguistic).
An example in facial grammar is a non-manual marker for a wh-question in which an articulator burrows his/her eyebrows for a wh-question and raises her eyebrows for a yes/no question as well as for topicalization and a rhetorical question.
Affective and grammatical expression on face may look similar to a non-signer's eye. For example, when eyebrows are grammaticaly burrowed, it may look like signer's mad, disappointed, or disgusted to a naive hearing outsider who knows nothing of sign language.
However, native and highly fluent signers are adept at distincting between emotional and grammatical facial expression.
In parentese, studies have shown that native-signing parents use different facial grammar with babies. For example, native-signing parents intuitively modify their facial grammar to a more pleasing affective facial expression. E.g. raising eyebrows instead of burrowing eyebrows for a wh-question.
Until these infants grow older enough (usually at around age two), the parents switch to using proper facial linguistic markers.
Baby Talk: Affective vs grammatical facial expression
In relation to parentese, studies have shown that native-signlan parents use a different facial grammar with babies. The result is no different from what I have been doing naturally.
In sign language, facial grammar is highly integrated with manual system. Emotional and grammatical expression on face may look the same but they are different. Native and fluent signers can distinct between emotional and grammatical faces in the same way they are aware of the different between gestures and lexical items (words).
It is no different from a spoken language that there is intontation and other vocal expression as well as vocal gesture that hearing listeners can distinguish between vocal gestures and spoken words.
Back to facial grammar, there are some eyebrows down that look like one's getting mad, disappointed, or disgusted to a naive hearing outsider who knows nothing of sign language.
When it comes to interacting with a baby in a native signlan environment, interestingly, parents modify their facial grammar to a more pleasing affective facial expression. E.g. raising eyebrows instead of burrowing eyebrows in some cases.
When these infants grow older enough to understand facial grammar, parents use proper facial grammar.