Newborn babies may cry in their mother tongues

Days after birth, French and German infants wail to the melodic structure of their languages

Only days after birth, babies have a bawl with language. Newborn babies cry in melodic patterns that they have heard in adults’ conversations — even while in the womb, say medical anthropologist Kathleen Wermke of the University of Würzburg in Germany, and her colleagues.

By 2 to 5 days of age, infants’ cries bear the tuneful signature of their parents’ native tongue, a sign that language learning has already commenced, the researchers report in a paper published online November 5 in Current Biology.

Fluent speakers use melodic patterns and pitch shifts to imbue words and phrases with emotional meaning. Changes in pitch and rhythm, for example, can indicate anger. During the last few months of fetal life, babies can hear what their mothers or other nearby adults are saying, providing exposure to melodies peculiar to a specific language, Wermke says. Newborns then re-create those familiar patterns in at least some of their cries, she proposes.

“Our data support the idea that human infants’ crying is important for seeding language development,” Wermke says. “Melody lies at the roots of both the development of spoken language and music.”

Newborns’ facility for imitating the underlying makeup of adult speech gets incorporated into babbling later in infancy, Wermke proposes. Earlier research has shown that, from age 3 months on, infants can reproduce vowel sounds demonstrated by adults.

Scientists already knew that, in the final months of gestation, babies can hear people talking, especially their mothers. Newborns prefer the sound of their mothers’ voices to the voices of other people, for example. In the days after birth, babies show signs of discriminating the sound of their native language from others and of recognizing when voice-like tones change in pitch.

Wermke’s team goes further, suggesting that newborns adapt their cries to melodic patterns characteristic of whatever language they have heard spoken.

She and her colleagues studied 60 healthy newborns, 30 born into French-speaking families and 30 born into German-speaking families. The researchers recorded 2,500 cries as mothers changed babies’ diapers, readied babies for feeding or otherwise interacted with the youngsters.

Acoustic measures allowed the researchers to identify 1,254 cries (in this case, a cry is a vocalization produced with a single breath) that contained clear rising-and-falling arcs suitable for a detailed analysis.

German newborns’ cries tended to start out high-pitched and gravitate to increasingly lower pitches. French newborns’ cries started out low-pitched and then moved higher. Comparable high-to-low and low-to-high intonation patterns characterize words and phrases used by fluent speakers of German and French, Wermke says.

Newborns strive to imitate their mothers’ behaviors however they can, in order to attract attention and foster bonding, Wermke proposes. Newborns can readily mimic the musical structure of what a mother says, in her view.

More work remains to be done to confirm that parental talk affects how babies cry, remarks psycholinguist D. Kimbrough Oller of the University of Memphis.

Mothers may have attended to babies differently in France and Germany, say by reacting faster or slower to crying bouts, which may have caused newborns to cry differently, Oller says. Also, recordings may have come from a different range of situations in one country versus the other — say, a focus on diaper changing in Germany and an emphasis on feeding preparation in France — which could have elicited different types of cries from babies. Either case would complicate an acoustic comparison of French and German newborns’ cries, Oller notes.

A related scientific debate concerns whether parents’ native language influences how babies babble during the first year of life. Oller regards babies’ babbling as having largely universal sound patterns.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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