Study shows unborn babies cry in their mother tongue
Babies aren't just crying, they are mimicking the intonation of their native tongue
Newborn babies mimic the intonation of their native tongue when they cry, indicating that they begin to pick up the first elements of language in the womb, a study suggests.
Scientists were already aware that babies are able to recognise certain sounds from birth, such as their parents’ voices, but they believed that infants were only able to imitate them from the age of about 12 weeks.
Now research carried out in Germany suggests that babies develop a capacity for language much earlier than was previously thought. “Our study shows the importance of crying for seeding language development,” said Professor Kathleen Wermke, who led the research at the University of Würzburg.
The study, which is published today in the journal Current Biology , recorded and analysed the cries of 60 healthy babies: 30 born into French-speaking families and 30 from German-speaking families. The recordings were made in maternity wards when the babies were 3 to 5 days old. Analysis revealed clear differences in the shape of the babies’ “cry melodies”, which appeared to accord with their mother tongue.
French newborns tended to cry with a rising melody contour, starting at a low pitch and ending on a high note, whereas German babies preferred a falling melody.
While the average volume of crying was the same, the French babies started more quietly and built up to a crescendo, while the German babies did the opposite. These patterns are consistent with characteristic differences between the two languages, according the researchers.
“When you say the word ‘Papa’ in German, for instance, you stress the first syllable, whereas in French it is the other way round,” explained Professor Angela Friederici, of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Leipzig. The same pattern is typical for longer phrases, she said.
Volker Dellwo, a hearing and phonetics scientist at University College London, said melody contour was one of the most basic characteristics of language and one that he could imagine babies mimicking.
However, other academics were unconvinced by the findings. “Biologists and medical people are always talking rubbish about language because they don’t understand it,” said Professor John Wells, a linguistics specialist at University College London. “Both German and French use rises and falls, as does English. It’s easy to compare syntax and word order but this just sounds too vague.”
Earlier studies of vocal imitation had shown that infants were able to match vowel sounds spoken to them by adults, but only from 12 weeks onwards. That skill depends on more sophisticated vocal control that is not physically possible much earlier.
“Imitation of melody contour is something that they can do immediately after birth,” said Professor Wermke. She said that from an evolutionary perspective, newborn babies were probably highly motivated to imitate their mother’s behaviour in order to foster bonding.
Speech is also one of the few human stimuli that penetrates the womb, where the foetus is otherwise insulated from light, smell and touch. “In the womb, you hear voices as though someone were speaking next door, so rhythm and melody contour are the two things you’d be able to perceive,” added Dr Dellwo.
Professor Wermke said that the research supported the idea that unborn babies could be soothed by music or a parent’s voice. “We’ve shown that the brain is mature to process basic aspects of language and music, and speech probably is stimulating for the foetus. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that it would be harmful if you were too busy to play them Mozart CDs, though,” she said.