Academic journal article Journal of Prenatal & Perinatal Psychology & Health

Prenatal Language Learning

Academic journal article Journal of Prenatal & Perinatal Psychology & Health

Prenatal Language Learning

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT: Although it is often ignored or denied by investigators of language learning, prenatal language learning is an important aspect of human development. During the third trimester of gestation, a baby in the womb can hear the mother's voice clearly, and makes use of this ability by learning the rhythms, tones, and sequences of whatever languages the mother speaks. These phonological patterns do not stand apart from context, but instead are experienced as integral parts of the mother's moods and activities. By building up neural patterns in the brain, the baby gets a head start on the phonological contours, grammars, and uses of the mother's languages.

That language learning begins before birth is an idea that is gradually gaining acceptance among neurolinguists and other researchers. That prenatal language learning can be affected by actions of the mother was demonstrated in these pages, in an article by Lafuente and colleagues (Lafuente, Grifol, Segarra, Soriano, Gorba, & Montesinos, 1997). As the 101 babies in this study get older, further reports by Lafuente et al. are expected to reveal more long-term effects of their prenatal training. In the meantime, it may be useful to attempt to summarize what is known and what is suspected about prenatal language learning.

In the following pages, I will first describe the developmental sequences of hearing and speech. Then I will summarize the evidence for, and the nature of, prenatal language learning. Finally, I will discuss some implications of current knowledge for students of language development and for families who will observe the process in action.


With or without prenatal language learning, some things are well known about the physiological and behavioral aspects of language learning. Let us review them. Although the underpinnings of hearing and speech may be intimately intertwined, they develop on different time schedules, hearing long before speech. Hearing is a capability shared by all mammals, and one for which there appears to be no very special developmental advantage for human beings. Physical and neural development of hearing occurs early in the life of the human fetus. "The vestibular system starts to develop early in the first months and is finished after 4 ½ months of uterine life" (Tomatis, 1987, p. 25). "By just 20 weeks in utero the auditory apparatus of a fetus is structurally comparable to that of an adult" (Chamberlain, 1987, p. 73). Neural development follows rapidly. "At 5 ½ months of prenatal life the cochlear nerve is myelinized. The influence of the cochlear system expands quickly as it takes in the vestibular system" (Tomatis, 1987, p. 25). That the hearing system is operational before the end of normal gestation was shown by Eisenberg (1969, as summarized by Chamberlain, 1987, p. 73), who "found that seventh-month prematures responded autonomically and behaviorally to a number of acoustic variables." Birnholz and Benacerraf (1983) used high-resolution ultrasound imaging to record eye-blinks of fetuses in response to "a vibro-acoustic noise source" of 110-dB output intensity "applied firmly to the maternal abdomen directly overlying a fetal ear." These authors found that "responses were first elicited between 24 and 25 weeks of gestational age and were present consistently after 28 weeks" (p. 516). They concluded that "hearing is established as a functionally interactive sensation by the start of the third trimester for the specific stimulus used and with the restriction to short latency craniofacial motor reactions" (p. 517). Mehler and Dupoux (1994) wrote that the hearing of newborns "is excellent. They are whizzes at auditory perception, recognition, and memorization. From their first moments and, according to certain studies, even during the last weeks of pregnancy, their auditory equipment is in perfect order" (p. 51).

Immediately after birth, auditory discrimination is evident. …

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