Language-Learning Begins Before Birth

According to a new study, a newborn baby's very first cry has the accent of his mother's language.

Do you have trouble rolling the Rs when you’re trying to teach yourself Spanish? It’s no wonder—language acquisition starts even before birth. So when it comes to learning a new language, you’ve got a lot of catching up to do.

According to a new study, even infants who are just a few days old have regional accents, which are detectable in their cries. Babies are able to memorize their mothers’ speech patterns while still in the womb, and can later mimic the melody patterns in their own vocalizations.

The subject has been researched before, but the new study is the first to reveal that a newborn baby’s very first cry is influenced by his mother’s language. “The prevailing opinion used to be that newborns could not actively influence their production of sound,” the study’s author Kathleen Wermke, a researcher from Germany’s University of Würzburg, said in a press release.

In the study, Wermke and her partners recorded the cries of newborn babies from France and Germany to find out whether there was a noticeable difference in their speech patterns. The two locations were chosen because there’s a dramatic variance in the countries’ languages: “In French, there are a great many words where the stress lies towards the end, producing a rising melody, while in German it is usually the other way round,” said researcher Angela Friederici.

They found that this pattern was echoed time and time again in the newborns’ primal cries. French babies’ plaintive wails rose in tone towards the end, while the German infants’ noises reversed the pattern.

The results are a striking indicator of how developmentally advanced newborn babies really are. “The melody patterns practiced in crying are building blocks for subsequent sound productions, from cooing and babbling through to the first words and sentences,” said Wermke.

The research also means that therapists may be able to detect language development issues far earlier than they have in the past, initiating an early intervention program that could have very effective results.

So, if you’ve got a baby, no matter how young he is, make sure to spend plenty of time talking to him. He’s already speaking your language.