Sunday, November 8, 2009

Babies and Language: What We Hear is What We Cry?

"Newborns Pick Up Language in the Womb"
AFP, via DiscoveryNews (November 6, 2009)
Babies and Language: What We Hear is What We Cry?
"Comparing the gurgles, coos and cries of French and German newborns, a team of scientists from both countries found that baby talk is not, as previously assumed, universal.

"Earlier research showed that human fetuses start to memorize sounds from the external world by the third trimester, and are especially keyed in to the melodic qualities of music and speech.

"Previous studies also showed that newborns prefer the voice of their mothers, and can decipher different emotional content -- anger, joy -- from the intonation of maternal speech...."

"...The French newborns tended to cry with a rising melody contour, while the German tots wailed with a 'falling' tone, a signature feature in each language, the study found.

" 'Contrary to orthodox interpretations, these data support the importance of human infants' crying for seeding language development,' Wermke said in a statement...."

The AFP article gives a pretty good overview of the research - and tells where to look for more. (An upcoming issue of Current Biology) The article implies that differences in the 'music' of babies' cries is learned, rather than hardwired - which may be the case.

On the other hand, although 'all Europeans look alike,' I think it would be interesting to see if it's what the babies hear, or what's in their genes that makes a difference. It should be possible to test that by studying babies whose parents or ancestors moved to another country - and switched languages - and comparing their cries to those of more sedentary families.

Just a thought.

There's a video that goes with the article - "Understanding the Brain: Development" (0:59 (April 4, 2006)) 59 seconds? Obviously, a few details are left out.

Bottom line? This is a pretty good look at one set of information that's been collected, about how we develop - and how assumptions about how we learn language are getting changed.

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