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This page was published on 01/12/2009
Published: 01/12/2009


Published: 1 December 2009  
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Environment  |  Health & life sciences


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Babies and language? It all starts in the womb

A mother's womb is the ideal place for a baby to pick up elements of what their first language will be, according to new research published in the Current Biology journal. The researchers from Germany and France said the cries newborns make are along the melody patterns typical of the language they heard before they were born.

The womb is an ideal place for babies to pick up on language elements © Shutterstock
The womb is an ideal place for babies to pick up on language elements
© Shutterstock

'The dramatic finding of this study is that not only are human neonates capable of producing different cry melodies, but they prefer to produce those melody patterns that are typical for the ambient language they have heard during their foetal life, within the last trimester of gestation,' explained Dr Kathleen Wermke of the University of Würzburg in Germany. 'Contrary to orthodox interpretations, these data support the importance of human infants' crying for seeding language development.'

Past studies found that human foetuses have the capacity to memorise external sounds by the last trimester of pregnancy, with a particular sensitivity to melody contour in music and language. A comparison of a mother's voice with another voice shows that newborns favour their mom's voice. The babies also perceive the emotional content of messages conveyed via intonation contours in maternal speech — what is commonly referred to as 'motherese', a non-standard form of speech used by adults when talking to babies.

Melody plays a central role in a baby's perceptual preference for the surrounding language and its ability to distinguish between different languages and changes in pitch.

Researchers had long speculated that the surrounding language impacted sound production in a baby's life later rather than sooner. This latest study found the opposite.

By recording and assessing the cries of 60 healthy newborns aged 3 to 5 days old (30 German-speaking and 30 French-speaking), the researchers discovered obvious differences in the shape of the newborns' cry melodies, based on their native language.

The researchers found that German newborns tend to favour a falling melody contour in their crying, and French newborns tend to prefer a rising melody contour. Dr Wermke pointed out that those patterns are consistent with characteristic differences between the two languages.

According to the team, the new data indicate a significant early impact of native language. Past studies of vocal imitation had demonstrated that babies are able to match vowel sounds presented to them by adult speakers, but only from 12 weeks on. That skill is contingent on vocal control that is impossible to obtain before three months.

'Imitation of melody contour, in contrast, is merely predicted upon well-coordinated respiratory-laryngeal mechanisms and is not constrained by articulatory immaturity,' the research showed. 'Newborns are probably highly motivated to imitate their mother's behaviour in order to attract her and hence to foster bonding,' the authors wrote.

'Because melody contour may be the only aspect of their mother's speech that newborns are able to imitate, this might explain why we found melody contour imitation at that early age.'

Also participating in this study were researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Germany, and the École Normale Supérieure/National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) in France.

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Current Biology
University of Würzburg

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