Babies begin language learning in the womb

Babies begin assimilating language before they are even born, according to a study that was published in the journal Acta Paediatrica.  Work conducted in American and Sweden on young infants has given scientists a greater understanding of the remarkable capacity of the newborn brain regarding language learning.

Mechanisms for foetal hearing arise by gestational week 30. Unborn babies listen to their mothers’ speech and “lock on” to her vowel sounds, as explained by Patricia Kuhl, co-director of the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences at the University of Washington. It is now thought that newborn babies have already learnt certain language components from their mothers and can demonstrate this learning shortly after birth. It has been long recognised that young infants have fantastic language-learning abilities – but never before has it been suggested that they exhibit evidence of prenatal learning.

The study has demonstrated instances of this prenatal ability. Forty infants aged about 30 hours were exposed to sounds from both their native and foreign languages. The researchers wanted to see if the babies recognised the sounds from their native language, which would reveal evidence of prenatal learning. To quantify the responses made towards the different sounds, dummies were attached to computers. The babies’ sucking on the dummies caused a corresponding computer trace. Upon hearing an unfamiliar sound, the babies sucked on their dummies for a period that was longer than the corresponding response to a familiar sound. This reflects a young baby’s thought process for familiar vs. non-familiar stimuli – greater concentration is exhibited when encountering a foreign stimulus.

“This is the first study that shows foetuses learn prenatally about the particular speech sounds of a mother’s language,” said Christine Moon, lead author and a professor of psychology at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington. Such work paves the way for greater insight into early brain development in humans.


About Sophie McManus

Sophie is a third year undergraduate studying Biomedical Sciences at Magdalen.