How Prosody Plays a Role in Language Development

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Newborns go from crying and grunting to full-on cooing and babbling within the first few months of life. It is incredible to watch! You may even notice that your baby imitates sounds or noises that you make. Beyond being sweet, this is a sign your baby is listening and learning, long before they even speak.

Babies can imitate because the first language component they pay attention to is melody. Your baby is testing this skill with their adorable, sing-songy chatter. This repetition is a part of prosody, which is the very first phase of language development! It is a sign your little one is on their way to speaking. Here's what you need to know about prosody, and your baby's developing speech.

What Is Prosody?

Prosody is the rhythm and melody of spoken language. "Prosody is the vocal quality that humans use to signify whether they are asking a question, making a statement, or showing excitement," explains speech and language pathologist Jocelyn M. Wood. Every language has its own unique prosody.

Caroline Meneze, PhD, CCC-SLP

[Prosody is] a delicate balance of several acoustic features like frequency or pitch, rhythm or duration, intensity or loudness, intonation, or the pitch pattern.

— Caroline Meneze, PhD, CCC-SLP

Prosody is everything in speech, besides the way we pronounce vowels and consonants together, that gives our speech a human quality, says Caroline Meneze, PhD, CCC-SLP, a prosody researcher at the University of Toledo's Speech-Language Pathology Program. "[Prosody is] a delicate balance of several acoustic features like frequency or pitch, rhythm or duration, intensity or loudness, intonation, or the pitch pattern," she says.

Prosody is not separate from language, but rather an indispensable part of it. "It's actually essential to our understanding of the social aspects of language," says pediatric neuropsychologist Sarah Allen, PhD, CBIS. "For example, we could say 'Great job!' with an excited uplifting tone that conveys enthusiasm and support or we could say, 'Great job!' in a sarcastic tone with a bereft sound that conveys distaste and dislike of a behavior."

How Babies Learn Language

Though you don't sit down and teach your baby how to talk, there are things you can do to help your baby's language development. Most important is talking to your baby frequently and regularly. A study published in the medical journal Psychological Science found that children whose parents spent more time talking and interacting with them as newborns had greater vocabularies at age 2 than those who did not. Though this was only true when adults interacted directly with the babies, not when the babies overhearing language.

Providing a quality language model filled with rich vocabulary does not need to be a chore. A good way to get in the habit of talking to your little one is to narrate your day while pointing and naming objects. For example, you can talk your baby through a diaper change, point to and name fruits and vegetables on a grocery trip, or even give a play-by-play of your morning routine.

Reading aloud to your baby from birth is another way to ensure that you immerse them in spoken language. Sharing books in infancy has been linked to higher vocabulary in the preschool years. Schedule storytime at set points in the day, such as before nap and bedtime, to help you find the time to read aloud on a daily basis.

As your baby listens to you speak to them, they begin to internalize prosody, speech patterns, and words.

Prosody's Role in Language Acquisition

Prosody is the first step in language development, and the first thing that babies imitate. "Prosody lays an important foundation for language acquisition," says speech and language pathologist Shelby Stangl. In fact, babies begin to imitate their home language's prosody during the first 6 months of life.

Young infants can recognize the rhythm and intonation of their own language when presented with several language melodies long before they can understand or speak words. "A baby is coding speech prosody from the very beginning," says Dr. Meneze. You can see this when a 4-month-old begins to repeat "da-da-da-da," for example. They are attempting to copy the rhythm and melody of their home language.

Prosody and Early Identification of Learning Delays

Studying infant prosody may offer clues about future learning delays. Over the first 6 months of life, a neurotypical baby will make increasingly complex imitations of their home language's rhythm and melody. If an infant is not following the typical progression, this may indicate future speech or language disorders.

Researchers discovered that children with autism had different-than-typical cry patterns at 1 month of age. "People with autism [...] tend to struggle with the prosody of language," Allen points out. "Since they don't naturally mimic others in behavior, social gestures, or tone, their voices often have a sing-songy sound to them and they have trouble understanding language that give clues to the meaning in the tone."

However, we don't yet know enough to make any definite statements about prosody and future language delays. "While some studies have reported on differences in the vocalization of crying in normal development and babies on the autism spectrum, we are far away from developing differential diagnosis of speech and or language disorders at this early stage," Meneze says. If you have any concerns about your child's langauge development, it is best to speak with your healthcare provider.

Why You Should Use Baby Talk

It's practically impossible to talk to a baby without using a high-pitched sing-songy voice. And if you are wondering whether using infant-directed speech (IDS), also known as "baby talk," is beneficial or not, know that it definitely is! Not only do babies prefer listening to IDS but it also helps support little ones' comprehension. Plus, baby talk often uses exaggerated prosody.

Shelby Stangl

Infant-directed speech is exaggerated and filled with different rhythms and melodies because this is what infants comprehend.

— Shelby Stangl

On top of making it easier for babies to understand adult caregivers, exaggerated prosody provides an early model of how language sounds so that little ones can begin to try it out themselves. "Infants are learning to utilize intonation patterns for speech later [and they are] also utilizing your prosodic features to learn language successfully," Stangl explains.

Stangl says that using IDS is instinctual for parents. "Infant-directed speech is exaggerated and filled with different rhythms and melodies because this is what infants comprehend. Research shows that infants are much more likely to associate meanings of words when the adult is utilizing IDS versus adult-directed speech (ADS)," she explains.

The best thing you can do is to continue speaking and interacting with your baby. Soon, you will hear those first sounds of language development!

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By Elisa Cinelli
Elisa is a well-known parenting writer who is passionate about providing research-based content to help parents make the best decisions for their families. She has written for well-known sites including POPSUGAR and Scary Mommy, among others.