Baby's Crying Patterns Mimic Parents' Accent

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A baby’s cry isn’t just a method for getting mom’s attention for food or comfort. It is also an important beginning to the development of language.

It is known that fetus can hear outside sounds from the womb during the last three months of pregnancy, but now German researchers have found that babies begin to pick up language patterns from their parents as well.

Kathleen Wermke PhD, lead researcher and medical anthropologist at the University of Wurzburg in Germany, studied the cries of 60 healthy babies born to families who speak either French or German. The full-term babies were between the ages of three and five days old, and had normal hearing. Their findings revealed clear differences in the melody of the infants’ cry that corresponded to their mother’s accent.

The babies born to French parents cried with a rising accent, from low to high, while the cries of the German babies had a falling inflection. The pattern fits with characteristic differences between the two languages. “Each language is characterized by very specific musical elements in the form of its prosody, that is, its intonation system and constituent rhythm,” said Wermke.

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Most of the influence is from the mother. Even though the fetus can hear the deeper pitch of the father’s voice, which carries better through the abdomen than a higher pitched sound, the mothers voice is also heard internally through the vibration of her vocal cords.

Wermke said: "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. Newborns are highly motivated to imitate their mother's behavior in order to attract her and hence to foster bonding ”

The research is published online in the November issue of the journal Current Biology.

It is already known that fetuses can perceive and memorize sounds from the outside world in the last trimester of pregnancy when the auditory system develops. A prior study noted a change in fetal heart rate when listening to a familiar voice. Other studies have found that shortly after birth, babies are more attentive to their mother’s voice than any other sounds, supporting the idea that the develop develops memories that are formed in the womb.

Previous studies of language development had found that infants from 12 weeks of age could match vowel sounds presented to them by adults. Native sounds were not thought to occur until vocal control developed between 7 and 18 months of age. But the new research found that unborn babies are influenced by the sound of language that penetrates the womb and only need well-controlled respiratory-laryngeal systems in order to imitate the melody contours of language.

The concept that fetuses can learn does not support playing classical music for unborn children or the use of "fetal learning systems" marketed as a way to give babies a head start by playing certain sounds through the abdomen. But parents-to-be are encouraged to talk and sing to their children while still in the womb, and during the first year of life both to foster bonding and to promote language development.

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