New research shows babies begin learning language patterns in womb

New research shows babies begin learning language patterns in womb


Researchers in brain science and language development have found that infants in the first days of their life cry in different ways depending on their parents’ language.

Scientists compared recordings of 30 French and 30 German infants aged between two and five days old, the Max Planck Society reports. They found that French newborns more frequently cried with a rising tone, while the German infants cried with a falling intonation.

This phenomenon, researchers said, is presumably rooted in the different patterns in the two languages which are perceived in the womb and later reproduced.

“In French, a lot of words have stress at the end, so that the intonation rises, while in German, it is mostly the opposite,” explained Angela Friederici, one of the Directors at the Max Planck Institute.

She reported that unborn humans become active listeners in the last trimester of pregnancy.

“The sense of hearing is the first sensory system that develops,” she commented. “The mother’s voice, in particular, is sensed early on.”

The amniotic fluid of the womb restricts hearing, however, and primarily the melodies and intonation of language are perceived in utero.

Previously, researchers had discounted the influence of language on newborns’ cries. It was assumed that infants’ “crying melody” was influenced by the build up and falling of breath pressure, as in baby chimpanzees, and not by mental representations in the brain.

"When they begin to form their first sounds, they can build on melodic patterns that are already familiar and, in this way, don’t have to start from scratch,” explained neuropsychologist Kathleen Wermke of the Centre for Pre-language Development and Developmental Disorders (ZVES) at the University Clinic Würzburg.

Friederici said that the imitation of melodic patterns is a behavior that the researchers believe developed over millions of years and contributes to the bond between mother and child.

The researchers involved in the study included staff from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, as well as the University of Würzburg and the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris.

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