Language Learning Begins in the Womb; in the Lab; Newborns Differentiate between Sounds, Languages, Researchers Say

Article excerpt

When Dr. Raul Artal, director of obstetrics at St. Marys Health Center, counseled his own pregnant daughter last year, he told her to play music to soothe her gestating baby.

Now a new study shows that Artals infant grandson may have learned language skills in addition to his mothers taste in music during his time in the womb.

The study out of Tacoma, Wash., and Stockholm, Sweden, shows that during the last 10 weeks of pregnancy, babies glean language information from their mothers. The findings mark one of the first times scientists have seen evidence that language learning begins in utero.

Researchers examined 80 American and Swedish infants an even mix of girls and boys. Thirty hours after the babies were born, researchers outfitted them with headphones that played vowel sounds in both their native tongue and the foreign language.

Pacifiers wired to a computer measured the babies reactions to the different sounds.

The more a baby sucked after hearing a computer-generated vowel, the more she demonstrated interest in that particular language- specific sound.

Researchers found that the newborns sucked longer for the foreign language, suggesting that the infants already had a familiarity with their native tongue at birth.

The researchers concluded that the babies in both countries, not yet 2 days old, had learned prenatally to differentiate between sounds and languages.

Thanks to mom.

This study confirms the importance of talking a lot to the baby, said Dr. Hugo Lagercrantz, professor of pediatrics at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm and co-author of the study. Although the newborn infant does not start to talk yet, its brain is like a magnet absorbing phonemes.

Artal, who is also the chair of the obstetrics and gynecology department at St. Louis University School of Medicine, said, This is a very sophisticated study. They were able to quantify responses to familiar sounds, but the phenomenon has existed for hundreds of years, if not thousands.

The study is another breakthrough in understanding how and when babies begin to process what they are hearing inside the womb. Hearing develops during the last trimester of pregnancy, with the cochlea the coiled inner ear cavity maturing in the last few weeks.

Scientists have long known that babies react to their mothers voice. A 2003 study found that babies heart rates speed up when hearing their mothers voice read poetry but slow when trying to understand verse read by someone else. …

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