Babies Begin Learning Language While Still In The Womb

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports – Your Universe Online

A groundbreaking study has demonstrated that newborns are able to distinguish between the sounds of their parents´ native language and a foreign language just hours after they are born. Previously, researchers believed that babies did not begin to recognize language differences until well after they had left their mother´s womb.

Scientists have long known that the mechanical and cognitive equipment for hearing develop in unborn babies at around 30 weeks, or 5 months. What researchers did not know — and what this new study has shown — is that unborn babies are already using their hearing to absorb the sounds of their mother´s language during at least the last 10 weeks before they are born. And of particular importance, say the researchers, are the sounds of the vowels in a the mother´s speech.

“The mother has first dibs on influencing the child’s brain,” said Patricia Kuhl, co-author and co-director of the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences at the University of Washington. “The vowel sounds in her speech are the loudest units and the fetus locks onto them.”

Earlier studies had observed that infants enter the world already equipped to start quickly distinguishing between the sounds of native versus foreign languages in the first months of life. Until now, however, researchers have been unable to provide direct evidence as to whether babies are able to begin absorbing and assimilating the sounds of their native tongue while still in the womb.

“This is the first study that shows fetuses learn prenatally about the particular speech sounds of a mother’s language,” explained Christine Moon, a professor of psychology at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington and the study´s lead author. “This study moves the measurable result of experience with speech sounds from six months of age to before birth.”

In order to test infants´ ability to recognize their native language, the researchers examined forty infants in Tacoma, Washington and Stockholm, Sweden. The babies were all around 30 hours old, half were male and half were female. Researchers played vowel sounds for the infants from both their native languages as well as foreign languages and then measured their familiarity with the sounds using pacifiers that were connected with computers. The scientists explained that pacifier sucking serves as a measure of whether they recognized certain sounds, with longer and shorter sucking indicating unfamiliarity and familiarity, respectively.

The team found that both Swedish and American infants sucked longer on their pacifiers when they heard foreign vowel sounds compared to the sounds of their native tongue, indicating that they recognized their mother´s language but not the other.

The team highlighted the fact that newborn babies are sponges for learning, and they believe that understanding how they absorb new information may provide new insights that could eventually help learners of all ages.

“We want to know what magic they put to work in early childhood that adults cannot,” said Kuhl. “We can’t waste that early curiosity.”

A report of the team´s study will be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Acta Paediatrica.