By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
An ongoing study of babies suggests that hearing the native tongue of their mothers affects their crying sounds, The New York Times reported. Initial findings comparing French and German babies in 2009 have expanded into a worldwide project.
According to the article in The Times, a German research team led by Dr. Kathleen Wermke has produced promising findings that support the theory that babies cry in the sound patterns of the language of their mothers, well before they learn to speak the language. Dr. Wermke’s initial research earned notoriety a decade ago when she discovered that “French and German newborns produce distinctly different ‘cry melodies,’ reflecting the languages they heard in utero: German newborns produce more cries that fall from a higher to a lower pitch, mimicking the falling intonation of the German language, while French infants tend to cry with the rising intonation of French,” the article said.
These differences go far beyond the two European nations. “Newborns whose mothers speak tonal languages, such as Mandarin, tend to produce more complex cry melodies,” the article said. “Swedish newborns, whose language has what linguists call a ‘pitch accent,’ produce more sing-songy cries.” The ways in which babies learn to communicate through language shed more light on how the sound patterns develop.
Encouraging Vocal Communication
Babies are fascinated by other people, whether staring at human faces or focusing on human voices they hear. Speaking to babies has its fair share of benefits, as well.
“Spend a lot of time talking to your child, right from the beginning, as you would talk to another adult or an older child, and use cues from your child to help guide a conversation with them,” said Dr. Peter M. Vishton, Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. “Most people don’t realize it, but infants learn a lot about the cadence and tonality of a language long before they learn the words of it, and talking about topics that are of interest to the child means that more of the language you are offering is likely to be absorbed.”
This is in line with Dr. Wermke’s baby studies. Infants mimic what they hear—and language absorption starts before they’re born.
Pre-Natal Students of Linguistics
It’s well-known that as babies grow in the womb, they can hear faint but distinct sounds from the outside world. For example, around 20 weeks gestation when great amounts of movement are typically felt by mothers, babies have been known to kick when they hear a familiar voice. However, they aren’t just attracted to a sound they recognize. With this research, we’re now beginning to find that babies are learning vocal patterns at the same time.
“While children are in the womb, they live in a completely dark environment,” Dr. Vishton said. “But they live in an environment which is quite rich in terms of sound; they don’t emerge into the world having never heard sound before. They can hear digestive sounds; the beating of the mother’s heart; her breathing; and, sometimes, the sounds of people talking.”
This last point is seen in Dr. Wermke’s findings regarding the sound patterns of crying babies that matches the native tongue of their mothers. “The sound of the mother’s voice will be very salient to the infant in the womb,” Dr. Vishton said. “The infant auditory system is built to receive and encode human speech, right down to its physical characteristics.”
Dr. Peter M. Vishton contributed to this article. Dr. Vishton is Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his Ph.D. in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University.