New research reveals that newborn babies are able to tell the difference between their native language and foreign languages within hours of birth. The finding, which will soon be published in the journal Acta Paediatrica, indicates that babies begin picking up language while they are still in the womb.
Experts have known for a long time that a baby’s ability to detect complex rules in language outshines that of adults.
After thirty weeks of pregnancy, brain mechanisms related to hearing are fully developed. Unborn babies from that point on are able to hear what their mothers say and absorb elements of the language. They are able to use what they’re heard during the final ten weeks of pregnancy and at birth to differentiate languages.
Patricia Kuhl, co-author and co-director of the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences at the University of Washington, said: “The mother has first dibs on influencing the child’s brain. The vowel sounds in her speech are the loudest units and the fetus locks onto them.”
Previous research found that within a month of birth newborns are able to learn and differentiate sounds of language, however this finding is the first of its kind to indicate that learning begins before birth while the baby is still developing.
Infants initially hear sounds of language, and only later on listen to meanings. This study appears to show that very early on, even before the baby is born, the fetus may be doing more than just listening to language sounds.
Christine Moon, lead author and a professor of psychology at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Wash, said:
“This is the first study that shows fetuses learn prenatally about the particular speech sounds of a mother’s language.This study moves the measurable result of experience with speech sounds from six months of age to before birth.”
A total of 40 newborns about 30 hours old were involved in the study in Tacoma and Stockholm. They all listened to sounds in their native language as well as foreign languages while in nursery.
The researchers were able to assess their reaction to sounds by measuring how long they sucked on a pacifier for. Short sucking was associated with familiar sounds while long sucking was associated with unfamiliar sounds. This means that the newborns can differentiate what they hear in utero.
The babies were found to suck on the pacifier for a longer period when they heard foreign languages as opposed to their native language.
Young children are the fastest learners as they can easily absorb new information, the researchers note that understanding how they do this could help find ways of improving learning at later years. Kuhl concluded: “We want to know what magic they put to work in early childhood that adults cannot. We can’t waste that early curiosity.”
Parental attentiveness to infant babbling ‘speeds up language development’
Infants whose parents are attentive to their babbling sounds have greater advancement in language development, according to researchers.
The research team, including Julie Gros-Louis, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Iowa, recently published their findings in the journal Infancy.
In 2003, a study by Gros-Louis and colleagues found that when infants looked at their mothers and babbled, infants were able to learn more advanced, syllable-like sounds more quickly when mothers responded positively – by smiling or touching them, for example – compared with infants whose mothers did not respond positively to their babbling.
In this latest study, the team wanted to see how mothers’ responsiveness to their baby’s babbling affected their language development over a longer period.
Over a 6-month period, the researchers monitored the interactions between 12 mothers and their 8-month-old babies for 30 minutes twice a month.
During each session, the team looked at how mothers responded when their child made positive vocal sounds, such as cooing and babbling, particularly when such sounds were directed at the mother.
Gros-Louis and colleagues found that when mothers made an effort to respond to what they believed their infant was trying to say, their baby showed greater advancement in language development. In detail, they made more advanced consonant-vowel sounds, meaning their babbling started to sound more like words.
In addition, these infants began to direct more of their babbling toward their mothers as time elapsed. “The infants were using vocalizations in a communicative way, in a sense, because they learned they are communicative,” explains Gros-Louis.
The same results were not seen among infants whose mothers who did not make as much effort to understand their prattling.
Findings show ‘it is possible to shape what a child is sensitive to’
All mothers were required to complete a survey a month after the study had ceased that detailed their infants’ language development. Infants whose mothers were attentive to their babbling during the study period produced more words and gestures aged 15 months than infants whose mothers who were less attentive to their babbling throughout the study.
The team notes that other research they have conducted shows that infants have similar responsiveness to both mother’s and father’s attentiveness, therefore the findings can also be applied to fathers.
These findings, alongside the 2003 findings, show that a child’s language development can be influenced by how a parent responds to their child’s communication efforts in infancy, according to the researchers.
Study co-author Andrew King, a senior scientist in psychology at Indiana University, says these results show that “social stimulation shapes at a very early age what children attend to,” adding:
“If you can show the parent can shape what an infant attends to, there is the possibility to shape what the child is sensitive to. They are learning how to learn.”
The team concludes that although their findings could change how individuals think about communicative development in humans, further studies involving a larger number of participants are warranted.