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Babies are found to cry in their mother's tongue

Just days after birth, German and French infants' wails mimicked the patterns of their languages. Researchers believe they started to pick up on the melodies in the third trimester.

November 07, 2009|Karen Kaplan

They may not be old enough to talk, but babies less than a week old know how to cry in their native language.

Researchers have known that infants have the ability to mimic speech starting around 12 weeks of age. Babies also show a preference for spoken language that mirrors the rhythm, melody and intensity patterns of their mother tongue.

But when they're too young to control their vocal cords or the muscles that shape the mouth to make specific sounds, how can babies demonstrate that they're tuned in to the chatter around them? Through their cries, suggests a team of European scientists.

The researchers recorded the cries uttered by 30 French and 30 German newborns when they were hungry, having their diapers changed or generally out of sorts. Though the babies were only 2 to 5 days old, they cried in distinct patterns.

The wails of the French babies started out low and rose to a higher pitch, whereas those of their German counterparts started out high and fell to a lower pitch. The German babies also cried with more intensity than the French babies, the researchers found. These patterns matched the intonation patterns of spoken French (in which the pitch tends to rise over the course of several words) and German (in which the opposite occurs).

The scientists said that fetuses start to pick up on the melody of ambient language during their third trimester in the womb. They can't hear all of the phonetic details of their mothers' speech, but they can perceive the overall patterns or phrases and sentences. Imitating those patterns probably helps newborns endear themselves to their mothers, the researchers theorized.

The findings, by scientists at the University of Wurzburg and the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Germany and the Ecole Normale Superieure/National Center for Scientific Research in France, were published online in the journal Current Biology.

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karen.kaplan@latimes.com

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