Native Village
Youth and Education news
December 2009  Volume 2

Newborns Cry in Their Native Tongue
Condensed by Native Village

From their very first days, the cries of newborns already sound like the language their parents speak.

Scientists have learned that French newborns cry with rising melody patterns that increase in pitch from beginning to the end. German newborns, however, prefer falling melody patterns. Both findings are consistent with differences between the languages.

This suggests infants begin picking up elements of language in the womb, long before their first babble or coo.

Scientists knew that prenatal exposure to language influenced newborns. Research had shown infants preferred their mother's voice over others'. But it was believed infants did not imitate sounds until much later on.

However, when scientists analyzed the cries of 30 French and 30 German newborns who were 3-5 days old, there were clear differences in the melodies of their cries based on their native tongue.

Babies imitate melody patterns using the voice boxes they had before birth. As such, they can begin mimicking their mothers "at that early age," said researcher Kathleen Wermke from the University of Würzburg in Germany. "Newborns are probably highly motivated to imitate their mother's behavior in order to attract her and hence to foster bonding."

The researchers suspect that language development may be rooted in melody, and these findings support their idea. "Music and language might have co-evolved for a certain time during evolution and share a primordial form of communication system," Wermke said.

The scientists detailed their findings online in the journal, Current Biology.

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