Newborns' Cries Reflect Parents' Language
Differences in Newborn Cry Patterns of German, French Babies Evident Very Early, Study Shows
Nov. 5, 2009 -- The cries of infants as young as three days old already
reflect the language their parents speak, according to a new study that
compared the newborn cries of French-born and German-born children.
It's well known by experts that parental voices, especially a mother's, are
perceived in utero and memorized, as are other sounds, such as simple musical
melodies, says Kathleen Wermke, PhD, a medical anthropologist at the University
of Wurzburg in Wurzburg, Germany, and a researcher of the study.
What has her new study added? "The surrounding language seems to affect
infants' sound production much earlier than researchers thought," she tells
WebMD in an email interview. The study is published online in Current
The new research suggests that well before babies coo, babble, or say "Mama"
or "Dada," they already have picked up the pattern of their native language --
and it comes out in their cries.
Newborn Cries: Study Details
In the study, Wermke and her colleagues recorded and analyzed the newborn
cries of 60 healthy infants when they were just 3 to 5 days old. Half had been
born into French-speaking families and half into German-speaking families. All
had normal hearing and were full-term babies.
The cries occurred naturally and weren't elicited or stimulated by the
The French babies tended to cry with a pattern that speech and language
experts call a rising melody contour, which goes from low to high; the German
babies typically cried with a falling melody contour, which goes from high to
low. The melody contour includes such components as intonation. The cry
patterns of the babies, Wermke found, were consistent with the patterns of
their native languages.
Newborn Cry Study: What It Means
The study results, Wermke and her colleagues report, show that the newborns
''not only have memorized the main intonation patterns of their respective
surrounding language but are also able to reproduce these patterns in their own
Although other studies have found that a child's native language affects the
sounds produced at 7 to 18 months, the new study suggests the impact happens
Imitating the melody contours of a language doesn't depend on a mature vocal
tract, Wermke says, which newborns don't have, but rather on the ability to
coordinate the systems for breathing and making sound, which they do have.
Newborn Cry Study: Second Opinion
The study suggests that the influence of the surrounding language on babies
happens earlier than experts previously have thought, says Diane Paul, PhD, a
speech-language pathologist and director of clinical issues in speech-language
pathology for the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association in Rockville,
Md, who reviewed the study for WebMD.
''The capacity to learn language is inborn, and it's shaped by what
[infants] hear in the environment," she says. The new study is saying that
''even before birth, the differences between languages are being heard, the
babies are hearing the different melodic patterns, and they are born with the
pattern that is more closely related to the melodic pattern they have heard in
the language around them."