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Language learning may start in womb

Nov. 6, 2009
Courtesy Cell Press
and World Science staff

From their first days, babies cry dif­fer­ently de­pend­ing on the lan­guage their par­ents speak—show­ing some learn­ing has al­ready started in the womb, ac­cord­ing to a new stu­dy.

From their first days, new­borns cry dif­fer­ently de­pend­ing on the lan­guage their par­ents speak—show­ing some learn­ing has al­ready started in the womb, ac­cord­ing to a new stu­dy. (Im­age cour­tesy Vt. Dept. of Chil­dren & Fam­ilies)


New­borns are cap­able of “dif­fer­ent cry melodies,” and they tend to pro­duce “mel­o­dy pat­terns... typ­i­cal for the am­bi­ent lan­guage they have heard dur­ing their fe­tal life, with­in the last tri­mes­ter,” said Kath­leen Wermke of the Un­ivers­ity of Würzburg in Ger­ma­ny, one of the sci­en­tists in­volved.

“These da­ta sup­port the im­por­tance of hu­man in­fants’ cry­ing for seed­ing lan­guage de­vel­op­ment.” 

The find­ings were pub­lished on­line Nov. 5 in the re­search jour­nal Cur­rent Bi­ol­o­gy.

Hu­man fe­tus­es can mem­o­rize sounds from the ex­ter­nal world by the last tri­mes­ter of preg­nan­cy, with a par­tic­u­lar sen­si­ti­vity to mel­o­dy con­tour in both mu­sic and lan­guage, ear­li­er stud­ies found. New­borns pre­fer their moth­er’s voice over oth­ers and per­ceive the emo­tion­al con­tent of mes­sages con­veyed via in­tona­t­ion in ma­ter­nal speech. 

Their pre­ference for the sur­round­ing lan­guage and abil­ity to tell apart dif­fer­ent lan­guages and pitch changes are based pri­marily on mel­o­dy, Wermke said.

Al­though pre­na­tal ex­po­sure to na­tive lan­guage was known to in­flu­ence new­borns’ per­cep­tion, sci­en­tists had thought that the sur­round­ing lan­guage af­fect­ed sound pro­duc­tion much lat­er, the re­search­ers said, but it now seems that’s not so.

Wermke’s team recorded and an­a­lyzed the cries of 60 healthy new­borns, 30 born in­to French-speaking fam­i­lies and 30 born in­to Ger­man-speaking fam­i­lies, when they were three to five days old. French new­borns tended to cry with a ris­ing mel­o­dy con­tour, where­as Ger­man new­borns seemed to pre­fer a fall­ing mel­o­dy con­tour in their cry­ing. Those pat­terns are con­sist­ent with char­ac­ter­is­tic dif­fer­ences be­tween the two lan­guages, Wermke said.

This imita­t­ion of lan­guage “mel­o­dy con­tour” by in­fants does­n’t de­pend on skills in ar­ticula­t­ion, which tend to de­vel­op a few months af­ter birth, the sci­en­tists said.

“New­borns are probably highly mo­ti­vat­ed to im­i­tate their moth­er’s be­hav­ior in or­der to at­tract her and hence to fos­ter bond­ing,” they 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.”


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From their first days, newborns cry differently depending on the language their parents speak—showing some learning has already started in the womb, according to a new study. That suggests babies start picking up elements of what will be their first language in the womb, say the researchers, who published their findings online Nov. 5 in the research journal Current Biology. Newborns are “capable of producing different cry melodies,” and “prefer to produce those melody patterns that are typical for the ambient language they have heard during their fetal life, within the last trimester,” said Kathleen Wermke of the University of Würzburg in Germany, one of the scientists involved. “These data support the importance of human infants’ crying for seeding language development.” Human fetuses can memorize sounds from the external world by the last trimester of pregnancy, with a particular sensitivity to melody contour in both music and language, earlier studies found. Newborns prefer their mother’s voice over other voices and perceive the emotional content of messages conveyed via intonation contours in maternal speech. Their perceptual preference for the surrounding language and their ability to distinguish between different languages and pitch changes are based primarily on melody, Wermke said. Although prenatal exposure to native language was known to influence newborns’ perception, scientists had thought that the surrounding language affected sound production much later, the researchers said, but it now seems that’s not so. Wermke’s team recorded and analyzed the cries of 60 healthy newborns, 30 born into French-speaking families and 30 born into German-speaking families, when they were three to five days old. The analysis revealed clear differences in the shape of the newborns’ cry melodies, based on their mother tongue, said the group. French newborns tend to cry with a rising melody contour, whereas German newborns seem to prefer a falling melody contour in their crying. Those patterns are consistent with characteristic differences between the two languages, Wermke said. This imitation of language “melody contour” by infants doesn’t depend on skills in articulation, which tend to develop a few months after birth, the scientists said. “Newborns are probably highly motivated to imitate their mother’s behavior in order to attract her and hence to foster bonding,” they 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.”