Skip to content
My WebMD Sign In, Sign Up

Health & Baby

Font Size

Newborns' Cries Reflect Parents' Language

Differences in Newborn Cry Patterns of German, French Babies Evident Very Early, Study Shows
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

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 Biology.

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 researchers.

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 production.''

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 much earlier.

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."

Baby's First Year Newsletter

Because every week matters, get expert advice and facts on what to expect in your baby's first year.

Today on WebMD

mother on phone holding baby
When you should call 911.
Mother with baby
Unexpected ways your life will change.
 
baby acne
What’s normal – and what’s not.
baby asleep on moms shoulder
Help your baby get the sleep he needs.
 

mother holding baby at night
ARTICLE
mother with sick child
QUIZ
 
baby with pacifier
VIDEO
Track Your Babys Vaccines
TOOL
 
Baby Napping 10 Dos And Donts
Slideshow
Woman holding feet up to camera
Article
 
Father kissing newborn baby
Article
baby gear slideshow
Slideshow