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Editorial Editorial: The Toddler’s Babble

Everyone loves babies. One who does not love babies or flowers—yes, they are considered on the same level—exhibits symptoms of some psychological illness. It is normal to love babies. And in this love we get overenthusiastic many times. Our love floods our speech. We fail to find words, quite literally, and end up spewing some gibberish that the baby does not understand; neither do we. The baby only understands love and tries to communicate it in a language she or he has not learnt yet, a language that is more an attempt to convey something than the conveying itself. For the baby this is normal as the ability to articulate language is not yet developed. But why do adults mimic it? One reason is the innate desire in every adult to live one’s baby life. The other reason that most parents are less conscious of is to systematically train the baby to learn language skills. And since it is not such a conscious attempt, the process is not quite systematic.

What do parents generally say to their babies? When they want to express their love, they say something like ‘bulu, bulu, bulu, bulu, ju, ju, ju, ju, ju’. So, the baby has to hear a large amount of talk that makes no sense to anybody, just because the parents think that is how the babies would understand them. Well, research proves that such a belief is wrong. Baby talk, parentese, motherese, or infant directed speech, is a kind of talk intended to aid language learning of the babies. It should be highpitched, in a sweet tone, and the words should be enunciated slowly, elongating the vowels. It is very important to use the right words for objects and people. Using sounds like ‘bah-bah’ for some object just because the parent thinks the baby will not understand the right word is completely wrong and delays the development of the language skills of the child.

Though you might not understand your baby, your baby is focused on you.

Imagine if you were learning a new language and the teacher teaches you words that are non-existent in that language, just because the teacher thinks you are not ready for the actual words. How frustrating would that be? That is exactly what happens when most parents use such meaningless words while talking to their babies. It is not surprising then that many adults continue to refer to some objects in their baby-language, or more accurately the language their parents taught them, and a few remain clueless till their death that such words do not exist. This is again how some words gain meanings unique to a particular family.

Parents use cooing and babble to talk to their baby because the baby gets excited while hearing such babble and also responds in the same manner. However, research proves that babies will get the same excitement when they hear their parents talking regular language in a slow, high-pitched voice with elongated vowels. For instance, a mother could say to her baby: ‘Baabeee, loook heeer iis daaddeee!’ Recently in a flight, an entire family was busy talking to the baby in the family. However, all they were doing was cooing and babble. One wonders if the baby would not have learnt at least some new words if that family kept on repeating some sensible words, actual words, instead of just crying ‘julubulu julubulu jhajhajalajala’ or ‘ittle-wittle’. Another mistake parents do is to follow the babies’ talk and stick on to using the words they use. If a baby were to call milk, ‘mummum’, the parents start referring to milk as ‘mummum’ thereafter. This seriously hampers the learning of the baby and the parents should continue using the right words even though the baby responds differently. Eventually, the baby would pick up the right word.

Connecting the words spoken to the baby with actual timings can greatly help the baby understand and learn new words. For example, when the baby is drinking milk, one could use the words ‘milk’ or ‘hungry’. Or, when the baby wants to sleep, one could tell the baby different words associated with sleep like ‘bed’, ‘blanket’, ‘sleep’, ‘dreams’, and so on. Telling normal words to babies and talking to them when they are just waking up or falling asleep, also quickens their language learning. It is interesting to note that the high-pitched babytalk is common across languages. The high-pitch is used mainly to draw the attention of the baby as the reflexes of the baby are not quite developed. Research shows that babies are much more intelligent and are quick to develop their grammar skills. Though you might not understand your baby, your baby is focused on you and is absorbing every word you say, and it is important that you talk sense.

This discussion has a deep philosophical premise. A teacher might feel that the unmasked truth, the bare truth should not be told to the student, because the student is probably not ready to receive it. This leads to a precarious situation where most students are unaware of the real, bare truth and are trying to grapple with something that was not true in the first place. Instead, it is wise for the teacher to give the bare truth in an accessible and simple language. Repeated hearing and contemplation helps a person understand even the most abstruse and difficult concepts. When learning a new concept—one that is very different from what has been taught to a person till then, like the concept of Brahman—the person learning that concept is on a par with a baby learning to speak. If the teacher were to assume that the person would not understand that new concept, then teaching and learning would become obsolete.

Queen Madalasa taught the supreme truth of Atman and Brahman to her babies. She told them in her lullabies that they were pure, immortal, and not the body and the mind. She did not shy from using the very words of the Upanishads just because they would not be intelligible to her babies. And what happened? All that wisdom was absorbed by her babies, and when they turned adults, they started a spiritual journey, bereft of worldly attachments, to realise their true nature that was told to them by their mother when they could not even speak. Swami Vivekananda admired Queen Madalasa’s parenting. Imagine what would happen if every parent spoke only sensible words to their babies but in parentese, in a manner that their babies would understand! All babies would learn language abilities at a much faster pace and they would learn everything right the very first time. The possibilities are endless. All that the parent wants as basic values that the baby should adopt, could be taught from the beginning. One could say: ‘Speeaak the truuuth! Respect yoour maather!’ It is very important that the right concepts, right words, and right language is communicated to the baby, albeit in a manner she or he would understand. Any kind of fear that is created in the baby’s mind at this stage of life is difficult and sometimes almost impossible to erase. That is why babies should never be traumatised by harshness or by giving fearful ideas. Of course, it requires tremendous patience and meticulous care but that is what takes to create anything worth mention. A bit of care in minding one’s talk to the babies can make all parents proud of brighter children with deep sense of values ingrained in them.

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