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Medicine Biotech Science

Babies Begin Learning Language In the Womb 250

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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  • Genetics (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday November 07, 2009 @02:27PM (#30015654)

    How do we know that genetics didn't play a role in the formation of their vocal cords, changing the way they utter their first cry?

  • Dramatic Findings (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Phroggy ( 441 ) <.slashdot3. .at. .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?

  • Re:Genetics (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday November 07, 2009 @02:36PM (#30015752)

    Not at all, but we may as well assert that a baby has some sort of choice in the color of their skin because they want their mother to have a higher chance of bonding with them.

    There are inherent differences in the way different races develop (dark skinned people with higher chances of skin cancer, eastern-Asians with lower average height than Europeans, etc). I just think it's silly to say that because the baby cries tended to correlate to characteristics of the mother language that they are learning basic language traits from the womb.

    I'm not saying that it isn't happening, I just think it's something worth more study.

  • Re:So... when? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Phroggy ( 441 ) <.slashdot3. .at. .phroggy.com.> on Saturday November 07, 2009 @02:49PM (#30015874) Homepage

    Didn't it say "in the last trimester"? Abortions after 24 weeks are illegal.

    But this delineation is entirely arbitrary, based on "what would make a significant number of people uncomfortable" rather than on science. Are they human beings at 25 weeks? Not human beings at 23?

  • Re:So... when? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by joocemann ( 1273720 ) on Saturday November 07, 2009 @03:01PM (#30015974)

    There is a difference between when the 'vast majority of abortions happen' and my own opinion/perspective on abortions. And this information has served to inform me further on a related topic to reproduction/abortion. That is why.

    I'm being vague because this topic is very controversial and I don't have the time or interest to get into it again. I just wanted to point out that this information is related and informative.

  • 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.

  • by garcia ( 6573 ) on Saturday November 07, 2009 @03:29PM (#30016194)

    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.

  • 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).
  • Abhimanyu (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday November 07, 2009 @03:37PM (#30016254)

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

    Check out:


    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 Dausha ( 546002 ) on Saturday November 07, 2009 @03:51PM (#30016324) Homepage

    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-reviewed scientific papers are conclusory, generally in the direction of bias of the specific field (or at the very least, in the direction of the peer-reviewers.

  • Re:Dramatic Findings (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday November 07, 2009 @04:00PM (#30016384)

    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.

  • Re:So... when? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Chibi Merrow ( 226057 ) <mrmerrow@moHORSE ... minus herbivore> on Saturday November 07, 2009 @04:37PM (#30016576) Homepage Journal

    and on the other side you have pro-life people who are against even the day after pill because a conception may have occurred.

    Even as someone who's against abortion, I can't understand that opinion. The pill prevents implantation. A fertilized egg not properly implanting and therefore not becoming a viable embryo is, based on my understanding, a rather common occurrence in a woman's life. Hell, it seems nowadays we're damn lucky to even get successful pregnancies.

    Define a time in a pregnancy when the fetus starts to develop a brain and possible self-awareness and just cut the line there.

    I'm not sure that's something that can be scientifically determined... Psychologists and Cognitive Scientists have been studying what makes something sentient for longer than you or I have been around, and they don't seem to be any closer to having figured that out than when they started.

    Though it would be significantly more ideal than the current determining factor: viability. 'Viability' changes as medical technology improves, with the date for a child surviving a pre-term birth slowly marching downwards. 24 weeks (6 months) is accepted as survivable, albeit with significant risk, with reports claiming successful deliveries at 21 weeks. We're on the threshold of second trimester deliveries being regularly survivable, and yet second trimester abortions are accepted as the baby is "not viable." I have no doubt that with the way medical technology is going, we'll eventually have the ability to produce entire artificial wombs for the gestation of children, where the mother does not even have to play a part other than the donation of an egg... What then? Does that modify our definition of viability? (Never mind the huge ethical can of worms opened by having artificial baby factories...)

    I don't buy that a week or two old fetus is a "person" any more than a brain dead accident victim is, to whom it's legal to remove life support from and let die.

    A friend of mine was a columnist in my Uni's newspaper and he actually used a similar example... "Should a family who's loved one is currently on life support and in a coma, upon being told by the attending physician that they expect the patient to be able to come off of life support and regain consciousness in three months, and then eventually go on to lead a normal fully functional life afterward, be allowed to have the patient removed from life support simply due to not wanting the financial burden? No? Then why is abortion legal?"

  • Re:Genetics (Score:5, Interesting)

    by MichaelSmith ( 789609 ) on Saturday November 07, 2009 @04:38PM (#30016586) Homepage Journal

    I have had exposure to this situation. My wife and her family are native Cantonese speakers but live in an English speaking country. In her brothers family there was a huge fight over whether their two kids would be raised as Cantonese or Mandarin speakers (their mother speaks Mandarin).

    When I went to their place the kids would approach me and ask me to take them to the park, speaking in broken English. So I would take them out and as soon as we got out of earshot their English would become perfect and they would explode with conversation. More recently their mother took her daughter to swimming lessons. She apologised to the teacher about the poor state of her childs English. After the lesson the teacher told her that actually there is nothing wrong with that girls english.

    Children soak up the language which is being used around them, regardless of their parents origin, native language or what is being used in the home. If a western family moved to Japan and hardly let the kids out of the house the kids would still become perfect Japanese speakers. I don't think genes have anything to do with it.

    But the children often hide their language ability from their parents. They don't want their parents to feel bad about their children learning from sources outside the home.

  • Whose choice? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by tepples ( 727027 ) <{tepples} {at} {gmail.com}> on Saturday November 07, 2009 @05:28PM (#30016900) Homepage Journal

    The chosen terminology by each group is pro-life and pro-choice. Respect it.

    Do "pro-choice" platforms take into account the father's choice or the child's choice?

  • Re:Genetics (Score:3, Interesting)

    by FST777 ( 913657 ) <frans-jan@nOsPaM.van-steenbeek.net> on Saturday November 07, 2009 @07:28PM (#30017624) Homepage
    Hi, the Netherlands here.

    You can abort until the 24th week of pregnancy. This line is drawn since with 25 weeks, the infant would have a decent chance of surviving when born.

    I've seen my daughter (born 2 weeks ago) on a sonogram being 12 weeks old. Everything is there, alive and (in this case) wildly kicking. Almost every "pro abortionist" will tell you that it should be OK for a woman to end an unwanted pregnancy at 12 weeks.

    DISCLAIMER: I don't know where I stand on this matter. I know how I feel about it, but I'm not completely able to rationalize it into a proper point of view.
  • Re:Genetics (Score:3, Interesting)

    by repapetilto ( 1219852 ) on Saturday November 07, 2009 @09:12PM (#30018276)

    Well youre using telegraphic speech, only including the sounds most important in conveying your meaning. I think the reason for this is that it raises the signal to noise ratio by limiting the number of sounds the non-native speaker needs to decode, allowing them to fill in the missing pronouns, etc after youve said whatever it is youre saying, rather than doing it as your making the important sounds(the signal).

    (the noise=processing of possible interpretations of that sound, the size of the set will vary inversely with how familiar you are with the language)

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