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Babies Begin Learning Language In the Womb 250

Posted by Soulskill
from the no-time-like-the-present dept.
Hugh Pickens writes "Science Daily reports findings from a new study which suggest that infants begin picking up elements of what will be their first language in the womb, long before their first babble or coo, and are able to memorize sounds from the external world by the last trimester of pregnancy, with a particular sensitivity to melody contour in both music and language. Newborns prefer their mother's voice over other voices and perceive the emotional content of messages conveyed via intonation contours in maternal speech (a.k.a. 'motherese'). '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, within the last trimester of gestation,' said Kathleen Wermke of the University of Würzburg in Germany. Wermke's team recorded and analyzed the cries of 60 healthy newborns, 30 born into French-speaking families and 30 born into German-speaking families, when they were three to five days old. The recordings of 2,500 cries as mothers changed babies' diapers, readied babies for feeding or otherwise interacted with the youngsters show an extremely early impact of native language, with analysis revealing clear differences in the shape of the newborns' cry melodies, based on their mother tongue."
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Babies Begin Learning Language In the Womb

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday November 07, 2009 @02:27PM (#30015658)

    Surely teaching languages like French and German to poor, defenseless, not even yet born babies breaks some law.

  • Dramatic Findings (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Phroggy (441) <slashdot3@@@phroggy...com> on Saturday November 07, 2009 @02:30PM (#30015676) Homepage

    I'm glad we have scientific evidence to back it up, but did anyone believe this wasn't the case? Is anybody surprised by these findings?

    • by NeutronCowboy (896098) on Saturday November 07, 2009 @02:37PM (#30015768)

      In hindsight, all scientific findings are "obvious" and "just common sense". What people forget to mention is that before the finding, there were about 200 competing, equally obvious and common sense based theories on what was happening.

      • by Phroggy (441)

        In hindsight, all scientific findings are "obvious" and "just common sense". What people forget to mention is that before the finding, there were about 200 competing, equally obvious and common sense based theories on what was happening.

        OK, but in this case... were there really 200 competing theories? I thought this was generally assumed (if not proven), going back a couple of decades?

        • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

          by Emerssso (865009)
          Assumed by some child language acquisition specialists, yes. Assumed by the ones who are scientific about their research, probably not.

          As I understand it, we have a fair amount of information about children responding to other phonetic and phonological aspects of the language(s) spoken around them, but there hasn't been any other research on prenatal language acquisition.
        • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

          by Anonymous Coward

          Read some Thomas Kuhn - most of what scientists do is "mopping up" - making SURE that the things we THINK are true, really ARE true. Most scientists are not out there looking to discover the unexpected.

      • Except in this case, there was already theory and evidence. See citations here [google.com].

        OP is right; this is not novel, but merely adds to existing evidence.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        People have been playing music to babies in the womb for years. Many parents are encouraged to speak to their baby while in the womb so the baby learns the sounds of mommy's and daddy's voice. Not new, but it puts some more scientific evidence to what any parent with a kid under 20 (or more?) could have already told you.

        Babies get excited and kick when there's commotion outside too -- loud noises and such. They are listening, and with fairly developed infant brains, it's no surprise that they begin getting

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by coolsnowmen (695297)

        There are plenty of ground breaking scientific findings that were not obvious. They fall under the category paradigm-shifting findings.

        --Evidence that suggested all things accelerate downward equally (neglecting air friction)
        --Evidence that suggested the world was spherical
        --Evidence that the earth was not at the center of...well anything
        --Evidence that suggested time was reletive
        --Evidence that things are made up of atoms and not Earth,Fire,Water,Air
        --DNA ...

      • by tool462 (677306)

        In hindsight, all scientific findings are "obvious" and "just common sense".

        Except for quantum physics. The more you "understand" it, the less sense it makes.

      • by raddan (519638) *
        But the most interesting thing is when the "common sense", "obvious" explanation turns out to be wrong. Science is full of examples like this, e.g., theories about light during the turn of the century. The new, better theories turned out to be so much weirder than anyone had imagined.
    • I am. I didn't know, and what I know now is very cool compared to what I would have assumed. I am surprised.

    • I know I wanted a Discovery or TLC show quite a few years ago that stated this same thing. I don't know why this is 'new' news.

      If you speak french to a french baby, they calm down. If you speak another language (with radically different phonemes) they don't respond to it any different than a random noise.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by icebike (68054)

      I'm glad we have scientific evidence to back it up, but did anyone believe this wasn't the case? Is anybody surprised by these findings?

      Actually I dismissed these "findings" as utter nonsense as soon as the word CRYING was followed by the word MELODY.

    • This is a bunch of balderdash ...
      When I was in the womb my mother used to play a bunch of old scratchy vinyl LPs, but that didn't affect me...fect me...fect me...fect me...fect me...fect me...fect me...fect me...fect me...fect me
  • by bargainsale (1038112) on Saturday November 07, 2009 @02:31PM (#30015702)
    Discussed here by someone who actually knows about this stuff:

    http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=1869 [upenn.edu]
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by NeutronCowboy (896098)

      I like the last paragraph: "Oh, and the journalistic generalizations were false as an expression of the authors' findings. Of course."

      Of course. Sigh.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Dausha (546002)

      So, your point is best summarize by a comment found on that link:

      "'This technique of cherry-picking atypical "typical" values for rhetorical effect is[...]'

      "I would have completed this sentence 'intellectually dishonest[.'] Contrasting that with the way you completed it is a rather sad comment on scientific publishing, especially if this piece has already passed peer review without any of the reviewers finding this worthy of comment."

      My experience is this situation is more common than not: that even peer-re

      • by cvd6262 (180823)

        Which is why replication so important.

        The lang blog guy hypothesizes that the differences might not be found in replication. Great. The study is pretty straight forward, go replicate it. It seems something that a few grad students in a seminar could knock out in a semester. Go for it.

  • by Improv (2467)

    I thought this was a well-established fact -- I remember being taught this in one of my psych classes.

    • by canajin56 (660655)
      What's taught in psych 101 is that babies recognize their mothers voices. Recognizing a voice vs. learning language skills is quite different.
      • by Improv (2467)

        Right, but I learned that phoneme acquisition began in embryonic states in a psycholinguistics class I took.

  • by 93 Escort Wagon (326346) on Saturday November 07, 2009 @03:21PM (#30016116)

    I remember when my daughter was born. She was 9 weeks early, so she spent several weeks in the neonatal ICU. What was interesting (and maybe somewhat relevant) is that quite often when my wife spoke, our daughter would seem to turn her head towards the sound. My voice didn't seem to have the same effect, nor did the voices of the medical staff.

    The nurses at the hospital thought it was "cute" and didn't seem all that surprised - so I guess I am rather surprised this stuff is apparently new info and not settled science.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by garcia (6573)

      I just went to a baby class where they demonstrated the power of the parents' voices over that of anyone else speaking to the baby. While two people compete voice wise for the baby's attention, the father will win out over strangers and the mother will win out over all.

    • I remember when my daughter was born. She was 9 weeks early, so she spent several weeks in the neonatal ICU. What was interesting (and maybe somewhat relevant) is that quite often when my wife spoke, our daughter would seem to turn her head towards the sound. My voice didn't seem to have the same effect, nor did the voices of the medical staff.

      When my wife was pregnant, she told me that my daughter would stop moving whenever I spoke.

  • Makes Sense (Score:3, Interesting)

    by kitsunewarlock (971818) on Saturday November 07, 2009 @03:30PM (#30016204) Journal
    Makes sense. Even without an ear, the baby is basically living in a giant fluid filled sac connected only a couple feet away from the source of the noise. A person's body is basically one giant ear (hence why you can hear something you whisper or a bone in your foot crack when you stretch despite the fact no one around you can hear it).
    • by lawpoop (604919)

      Makes sense. Even without an ear, the baby is basically living in a giant fluid filled sac connected only a couple feet away from the source of the noise.

      What's novel here is that, for a long time ( about 100 years or so ), they thought that a human brain did almost nothing at a higher level ( like language acquisition ). The orthodox thinking was that about two years old, when neuron's myelin sheathes are fully formed, thus insulating the neurons, the baby can finally do some real cognition. But not before.

      Now we're finding out that quite a bit is going on much earlier than anyone suspected.

  • Abhimanyu (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward

    Ability of a fetus to learn in the womb has been part of Hindu mythology for a loooooong time.

    Check out:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abhimanyu

    Hindus have strict restricts on pregnant women because of this. Of course not everyone follows these, but it is generally the case to keep pregnant women in a pleasant and positive environment..

    It is good to see that this has been scientifically validated.

    • by Abcd1234 (188840)

      Uh, it hasn't been. All this study suggests is that the fetus may begin to develop the most rudimentary language skills in the womb, which isn't even remotely the same as "[learning] the knowledge of entering the deadly and virtually impenetrable Chakravyuha".

      So no, this doesn't justify your pet superstition.

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