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Is there something you have always wanted to know about language? We might have an answer! On this page we answer questions about various aspects of language asked by people outside of the language researcher community.

What do researchers mean when they talk about "maternal language"?

When researchers talk about "maternal language", they talk about child-directed language. Modern research on the way in which caregivers talk to children started in the late seventies. Scholars who study language acquisition were interested in understanding how language learning is influenced by the way caregivers talk to their children. Since the main caregivers were usually mothers, most first studies focused on maternal language (often called Motherese), which was usually described as having higher tones, a wider tonal range and a simpler vocabulary. However, we now understand that the ways in which mothers modify their speech for their children are extremely variable. For example, some mothers use a wider tone range than usual, but many mothers use nearly the same tone range they use with adults. Mothers’ speech also changes to adapt to their children’s language abilities, so maternal speech can be very different from one month to the next.

Q&A maternal 6.2

Image: Eoin Dubsky

Also, in some cultures mothers use little or no “baby talk” when interacting with their children. Because of this, it is impossible to define a universal maternal language. It’s also important to remember that fathers, grandparents, nannies, older siblings, cousins, and even non-family members often modify their speech when they address a young child. For this reason, researchers today prefer to use the label “child-directed speech” instead of "maternal language" or “motherese”. Some recent studies also show that we do more than just modify our speech for children: we also modify our hand gestures and demonstrative actions, usually making them slower, bigger, and closer to the child. In sum, child-directed language seems to be only one aspect of a broader communicative phenomenon between caregivers and children.

Emanuela Campisi, Marisa Casillas & Elma Hilbrink

Further Reading:

Fernald, A., Taeschner, T., Dunn, J., Papousek, M., de Boysson-Bardies, B., & Fukui, I. (1989). A cross-language study of prosodic modifications in mothers' and fathers' speech to preverbal infants. Journal of Child Language, 16, 477–501.

Rowe, M. L. (2008). Child-directed speech: relation to socioeconomic status, knowledge of child development and child vocabulary skill. Journal of Child Language35, 185–205.

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The Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics is an institute of the German Max Planck Society. Our mission is to undertake basic research into the psychological,social and biological foundations of language. The goal is to understand how our minds and brains process language, how language interacts with other aspects of mind, and how we can learn languages of quite different types.

The institute is situated on the campus of the Radboud University. We participate in the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, and have particularly close ties to that institute's Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging. We also participate in the Centre for Language Studies. A joint graduate school, the IMPRS in Language Sciences, links the Donders Institute, the CLS and the MPI.

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This project was coordinated by:

Katrien Segaert 
Katerina Kucera
Judith Holler

Sean Roberts
Agnieszka Konopka
Gwilym Lockwood
Elma Hilbrink
Joost Rommers
Mark Dingemanse
Connie de Vos