August 22, 2016 12:40 p.m.
Photo: Stephen Marks/Getty Images
A baby’s first words are a culmination as much as they are a beginning — long before they’re speaking, babies are watching, listening, processing, their little brains working furiously to make sense of the world. As Science of Us has previously reported, preverbal babies are in a constant state of dress rehearsal, putting in a ton of mental work before making their linguistic debut.
But new research shows that they’re not just taking it all in; they’re participating. From the moment they’re born, babies are, in their own way, communicating in the language of their families: Even before they have words, they have accents.
In a pair of studies led by Kathleen Wermke, who runs the Center for Pre-speech Development and Developmental Disorders at the University of Würzburg in Germany, researchers ran acoustical analyses on more than 6,000 cries, collected from infants during their first week of life. In the first, published in the Journal of Voice, they focused on babies born to German and Mandarin-speaking Chinese families. In the second, published in Speech, Language and Hearing, they compared the cries of German babies to those of babies from Nso families in Cameroon, who speak Lamnso.
Unlike German (and English), both Mandarin and Lamnso are both tonal languages, in which a single combination of sounds can create multiple words; the meaning of a spoken word changes depending on the pitch the speaker uses. Accordingly, the Chinese and Nso babies both cried more melodically than their German counterparts: They had higher “intra-utterance frequency variation,” meaning their pitches reached higher highs and lower lows, and their cries also fluctuated in pitch more quickly.
Together, the two studies suggest that babies are learning the nuances of speech even before they’re born, absorbing information about pitch from their mothers while still in the womb. “Unlike other voices, that of the mother is not dampened by the abdominal walls and is the most important acoustic speech source for a fetus,” the researchers noted, adding that their results “further underscore the assumption of an early shaping effect of maternal speech.”
The sample sizes of both studies were small — in total, the authors examined just under 150 babies — and both acknowledged that further research is necessary to fully understand just how much they absorb about language at such a young age. But in the meantime, they wrote, “We are intrigued by the possibility that a young infant’s vocal behavior may be shaped by the ambient language long before canonical syllables or vocabulary and grammar are established.” Babies: always listening, always proving smarter than we give them credit for.