Idioglossia and Secret Language of Twins

Twin talk

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One of the popular myths about multiples is that they share a secret language, a form of communication known only to them. Terms such as idioglossia, autonomous language or cryptophasia describe the phenomenon of twin language, a fascinating concept that has intrigued researchers and parents alike. However, it's actually very rare for twins to develop a true "language," and usually only in cases of extreme isolation.

What Is Twin Talk?

Rather, the phenomenon is actually attributable to young twins mimicking each other's attempts at language, often incorrectly. All babies babble incoherent sounds; it's their way of practicing vocalization and making the connections in their brain that lead to language development.

Some twins may give the appearance that they actually understand each other's babbling, which makes it look like they share a secret language. As they grow up and repeat each other's vocalizations, it may appear that they are talking in a secret language, while they're really just mispronouncing sounds and words.

About 40% of twins, generally monozygotic or identical twins, will develop some form of autonomous language, using nicknames, gestures, abbreviations, or terminology that they only use with each other.

While parents and siblings can often discern the meaning, the twins generally don't use the terms with others.

Language development in twins or multiples is often delayed or different from singleton peers. Some research shows that twins, particularly boys, may lag months behind in their ability to express themselves verbally. There are many factors that contribute to speech delays. Babies learn language from their caregivers, especially parents. Parents of multiples, who are often more exhausted and stressed by the challenges of caring for two or more babies, may be less verbally involved with their children.

Young twins are together nearly all the time, and like any two people who spend most of their time together, they learn to rely on nonverbal or shorthand forms of communication. They're able to act intuitively, understanding each other's gestures, grunts, or vocalizations. They also mimic each other's attempts at expressive language, often reinforcing incorrect pronunciation. Twins tend to talk faster and may abbreviate their words or leave out consonants as they pronounce words, perhaps in a competitive attempt to talk over their co-twin and grab their parent's attention first. Finally, some delays may result from cognitive or physical consequences of premature birth.

In most cases, multiples will catch up to their singleton peers by the time they start school. But for some, speech problems can create difficulties for some children in later years, particularly in reading or spelling. In some cases, early intervention or speech therapy can help address special needs.

Tips for Parents of Twins

Although it's cute or interesting, parents of multiples should encourage correct speech in favor of twin talk. Here are some tips:

  • Talk, talk, talk! Communicate with your babies, giving each child plenty of one-on-one time.
  • Offer plenty of exposure to other children, particularly older children, instead of having young twins play together exclusively.
  • Read to them. The benefits of reading to children are numerous.
  • Motivate your multiples to express themselves with language. Don't give in to requests expressed by grunts or whimpers if they have the ability to make requests using words.
  • Don't let one twin become a spokesperson for the other, Encourage each child to speak for themselves.
  • Ask questions to engage your twins in conversation. As they get older, use open-ended questions to spark discussion.
  • Don't interrupt your child to make corrections while they're speaking. Rather, let them finish, then say the words correctly by repeating them back to them.
1 Source
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  1. Rice ML, Zubrick SR, Taylor CL, Gayán J, Bontempo DE. Late Language Emergence in 24-Month-Old Twins: Heritable and Increased Risk for Late Language Emergence in TwinsJ Speech Lang Hear Res. 2014;57(3):917-928. doi:10.1044/1092-4388(2013/12-0350)

By Pamela Prindle Fierro
 Pamela Prindle Fierro is the author of several parenting books and the mother of twin girls.