08/05/2012 10:02 BST | Updated 22/05/2015 10:12 BST

Parents, Please Stop The Baby Talk

Mother and child talking Rex Features

If you were teaching someone a foreign language, would you write down the proper word on the blackboard, or a made-up one of your choosing? Would you teach them to end each noun with a 'y', regardless of the actual spelling? I didn't think so.

Then why oh why do you insist on talking to children about the nice doggy, the ickle fishy, the pretty dolly and the bloody horsey? Why is a car a brum-brum and an ambulance a nee-naw? Why must we send children to beddy-byes?

I'm passionate about language and nothing gets me more annoyed than baby talk. I've seen well-educated, mature, articulate friends turn into babbling idiots as soon as they get a child in their sights. Because it's not just babies, you know.


I'll accept that any one of us could be susceptible to the occasional 'diddums' when confronted with a cute newborn, but surely once a child is talking themselves, it's time to start speaking properly?


Apparently not. Mum-of-two Sarah tells me her friend's pre-schooler is fondly referred to as 'Bubbles', the subject of such proclamations as "Bubbles no like fishy-wishy". How revolting.

"At times I'm close to stapling her mouth shut," says Sarah. I'll hold her down for you.

Some time ago I had to interview a nanny and observed her playing with the children as we chatted about her impressive childcare credentials. She handed a Lego brick to my eldest, then two.
"Say ta, then," she beamed. My son looked confused.
"Thank you," he offered instead.
I shuddered and didn't give her the job.

Don't get me wrong – I don't object to the word ta if it's part of your natural vocabulary. But I do object to teaching a child to say ta when they could be taught 'thank you', and it's a trend which seems to have swept every nursery and childcare setting in the country. What is wrong with 'thank you'?

Sure, it's a tougher word to crack, but I'd far rather my children were using the correct words, even if it's mispronounced. More often than not, the language used with children is just made-up, and no easier to pronounce than the correct version. How is 'woof-woof' easier to say than dog, for example? It's as though we're desperate to keep our children babies for as long as possible.

Martin has two children, and freely admits to using baby talk with them. "Use of a special language means children know you're talking to them," he tells me. "Phrases like drinkies, yum-yum, poo-poo make a child feel special – you're using a variant of language just for them."

I don't agree with this approach. I think a far better gift for a child is that of a rich and accurate vocabulary they'll use throughout their life. After all, you wouldn't want your offspring ridiculed at school for asking where she can do a wee-wee, would you?

This kind of child-directed speech is referred to by experts as motherese (or the more politically correct parentese). It has its benefits, I'll acknowledge; the sing-song tone one automatically adopts when talking to a baby instinctively hits the right notes with their immature sound systems.

But, like talking about oneself in the third person ("Mummy's so proud of you!"), it's a habit parents seem to find hard to break. Which is why my friend Alice still talks about her son's trousery-wouseries despite the fact he's nearly four. In fact, Alice takes it one step further, adopting several words from her children's lexicon into family parlance.

It is for this reason that when I visit Alice and her husband I am offered not milk in my coffee, but 'key', a hangover from when one year old Livvy lengthened milk to milky, then shortened it again.

"Has the key been delivered?" they'll say to each other, without a child in sight. "Must buy some key," Stephen will mutter, as he picks up his briefcase for work. Perhaps he has the whole office saying it.


Using made-up words or babyfied language is not only nauseating but rather patronising to children, who are in most cases perfectly capable of using the correct word – or at least making a good stab at it.


My children love learning new language and beg me to break down the sounds in complicated words until they can say them perfectly. Encouraging children to speak properly starts from the moment they're born, and it's a crime not to let them learn accurately.

After all, language is a gift. Innit.

What do you think?
Do you agree with Emily that children should be taught to speak properly?
Without needing to talk baby language, don't you think baby mispronunciations that become family phrases are a lovely bond for families to share?