That sing-songy, exaggerated tone of voice that characterizes baby talk has a name, and it is not "fatherese" for a reason. 

Instead, it is specifically called "motherese," and research presented today at the 165th meeting of the Acoustical Society of America provides evidence that fathers do in fact speak to their children in a different way than mothers do. The researchers suggest that the two distinct forms of speech may complement one another in terms of the child's language developments.

"Dads spoke to their children more like they spoke to other adults rather than in a special way," lead author Mark Vandam of Washington State University said in an interview. "We've hypothesized that children get to try out certain kinds of speech with mom and get to try out other kinds of speech with dad."

When the researchers analyzed data from all-day recordings of the interactions between 11 children and their parents, they found that the fathers' approach to communicating with their children was very different from motherese, a phenomenon that has been described by researchers many times, according to Vandam. Features of motherese include variability in pitch and overall higher pitch, but the reasons behind this common practice are not entirely clear.

"One of the leading ideas is that it's a way to get babies' attention," says Vandam. "When they use a sing-songy or variable pitch, babies key into that."

This is of course not how adults speak to one another, yet children need to learn such real-world speech patterns. That may be where dads come in.

"The dads provide a link to that less familiar, to that outside world, to that more secular world while moms allow the kids to practice from an intimate or domestic perspective, with the familiar," Vandam says. "Kids need practice in both of these environments."

This was a small, preliminary study and further research is needed, but Vandam sees understanding the differences between the way mothers and fathers speak to their children as a way to improve the speech recognition algorithms used with hearing aids and cochlear implants for children with hearing loss.

"In the broader picture when we talk about educating our children we have a sort of one-size-fits-all model where we say this is how you approach a child with respect to language learning," he says. "But we are finding out that there are not-so-subtle differences between how parents interact with their children so we may need to have a little bit more nuanced approaches to some of these ideas."

The poster that the researchers presented can be found here.

Photo: Jon DeJong | Flickr

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