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:

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.

Parentese: drive

I couldn't help it but enjoyed using parentese, especially with the ASL verb drive-vehicle.

I kept signing this ASL verb drive-vehicle this way. Somehow it felt familiar with this parentese decades ago used by one of my native-signing family members or relatives when I was little.

Video clip (translation): "Today (we'll be) going out and driving to the music club". I used the "music friends" for "music club".

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This documentation project follows a child's language acquisition, literacy development, and phonological acquisition in sign language, specifically ASL, from newborn to age five in a natural native-ASL environment and visual culture.