Babies Begin Learning Language in Womb


A new study shows that unborn babies are listening to their mothers talk during the last 10 weeks of pregnancy and at birth can demonstrate what they’ve heard. Credit: Pacific Lutheran University

Newborn babies only a few hours old are able to differentiate between sounds from their native language and a foreign one. A new study indicates that babies begin absorbing language while still in the womb, earlier than previously thought.

The scientists published their findings in the journal Acta Paediatrica. Sensory and brain mechanisms for hearing are developed at around 30 weeks of gestational age, and this new study shows that unborn babies are listening to their mothers talk during the last 10 weeks of pregnancy. The fetus locks on the loudest sounds in the speech, which are the vowels.

Previous studies have shown that newborns were born ready to learn and discriminate between language sounds within their first few months of life. However, there was no evidence that language learning began in utero.

This study moves the measurable result of experience with sounds from six months of age to before birth, states Christine Moon, lead author and psychologist at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington. Forty infants, about 30 hours old, 15 boys and 15 girls, were studied in Tacoma and Stockholm, Sweden. While in the nursery, the babies listened to vowel sounds in their native language and in a foreign one. The researchers measured their interest by how long they sucked on a pacifier, which was wired to a computer, measuring their reaction to the sounds. Longer or shorter sucking for unfamiliar or familiar sounds is evidence for learning, because it indicates that infants can differentiate between the sounds heard in utero.

Infants are the best learners, and discovering how they learn could give insights on how to improve lifelong learning.

Reference: “Language experienced in utero affects vowel perception after birth: a two-country study” by Christine Moon, Hugo Lagercrantz and Patricia K Kuhl, 22 November 2012, Acta Paediatrica.
DOI: 10.1111/apa.12098

1 Comment on "Babies Begin Learning Language in Womb"

  1. Madanagopal.V.C | January 15, 2013 at 7:13 am | Reply

    A baby ‘in utero’ can listen to sounds of the mother and nearby relatives but claiming that they learn the language or their mother tongue is a bit too far to agree. Even the vowel sound which gives a loud noise in their mother tongue can be listened by the baby later on since it inspires its in vitro hearing of this sound often. The heart beat of the mother which was constantly loaded in its ear as a music of its lifetime in the womb, will definitely sing a lullaby song when the baby is resting on the mother’s chest later on. Thank You.

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