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Babies Cry In Language Of Parents

November 6, 2009

A new study finds that from their earliest days of life, newborn babies cry in the language their parents speak.

The new research suggests that infants begin picking up elements of what will become their first spoken language while still in the womb. 

“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 fetal life, within the last trimester of gestation,” said Kathleen Wermke of the University of Wrzburg in Germany, who conducted the study with French and American colleagues.

“Contrary to orthodox interpretations, these data support the importance of human infants’ crying for seeding language development.”

Previous research has shown that by the last trimester of pregnancy, human fetuses are able to memorize sounds from the external world, and are particularly sensitive to melody contour in both music and language.  Vocal imitation studies have also shown that infants older than 12 weeks of age can match vowel sounds of adults after

The researchers recorded the cries of 60 healthy newborns, 30 born into French-speaking families and 30 born into German-speaking families.  All of the infants were three to five days old.

The analysis also revealed distinct differences in the shape of the newborns’ cry melodies, according to their mother tongue.

They found that French newborns tend to cry with a rising melody contour, while their German counterparts prefer a falling melody shape — patterns that fit with characteristic differences between the two languages.

Wermke said this shows that newborns “are capable of producing different cry melodies,” and that they prefer melodies in the pattern of the language they heard while in the womb.

The study showed an “extremely early” impact of native language, the researchers said, and confirmed that babies’ cries are their first formal attempts to communicate specifically with their mothers.

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

The study was published online on November 5th in Current Biology.

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