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Babies may start to learn language before they are born


Newborn babies seem to recognise the language spoken by their mother

Fida Hussain/AFP/ Getty Images

Experiments with newborn babies suggest they can already recognise their mother tongue, hinting that language learning may begin before birth.

“We’ve known for a while that fetuses hear towards the end of gestation,” says Judit Gervain at the University of Padua in Italy. “[Newborn babies] can recognise their mother’s voice and prefer it over other female voices, and they can even recognise the language their mother spoke during pregnancy.”

To investigate further, Gervain and her colleagues studied the brain activity of 49 babies with French-speaking mothers aged between one and five days old.

Each newborn was fitted with a small cap that contained 10 electrodes placed close to regions of the brain linked to speech perception.

The team then played recordings that began with 3 minutes of silence, then 7-minute excerpts from the story Goldilocks and the Three Bears in English, French and Spanish in different orders, followed by another bout of silence.

When the babies listened to the French audio, the team saw a spike in a type of brain signal called long-range temporal correlations, which is linked to speech perception and processing. These signals were reduced when the babies heard other languages.

In the group of 17 babies that heard French last, the team found that this spike in neural activity was sustained during the silence that followed.

These findings imply that babies may already recognise their mother’s native language as one that is more important, says Gervain. “It’s essentially a boost for learning their native language,” she says.

The team now hopes to conduct experiments involving babies with mothers that speak different languages, particularly Asian or African ones, to see how generalisable the results are. It also wants to explore how the development of speech perception in the uterus could vary in infants with less typical prenatal experiences, such as premature babies.

“Of course, it’s nice to talk to the belly,” says Gervain. “But we show that even just natural, everyday activities like shopping or talking to the neighbour is already enough speech to act as a scaffolding for their baby’s learning.”

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