Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Language learning starts in the womb!

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A new study published on the November 5th online edition ofCurrent Biology reveals that newborns' cries already carry the mark of their parents language. The study has found that babies start to develop language elements in the womb, long before they first start to coo and babble.
The findings not only disclose that newborn human babies can produce different sounding cry sounds. They also reveal that neonates prefer to make the sound patterns that were typical to them when in the womb during their third trimester of gestation, explained Kathleen Wermke of the University of W├╝rzburg in Germany. Unlike previously believed, the data in this study supports how important a baby'a crying is for seeding the development of language, added Wermke.
In the last trimester of pregnancy human fetuses can memorize external sounds, particularlymelody contours in music and language. Newborns prefer their mother's voice above other voices and can perceive emotion through intonation contours in maternal speech, also known as 'motherese' or baby talk. Babies' ability to differentiate between languages and changes in pitch is based on melody patterns.
The study's research team, led by Wermke, recorded and analyzed 60 healthy three to five day old newborn's cries, half of which were born to French-speaking families and the other half to German-speaking families. Clear differences were noted in the tone of the babies' cries, based on their maternal tongue.
French newborns had a cry with a rising melody contour, while the German babies had a falling melody contour cry. These melody patterns are consistent with the two languages, stated Wermke.
The data from this study show a very early native language impact, said the researchers. Infants can't match vowel sounds made to them by adult speakers until 12 weeks after being born, that skill depends on vocal control. However, they can imitate the tone of their mother's spoken language.
The fact that they can imitate melody contour, is probably due to their motivation to mimic their mother's voice to establish a bond. Since melody contour is probably the only characteristic of their mother's speech they can imitate, it could explain why it is found so early in a newborn's life.
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