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Newborns' Cries Reflect Parents' Language

Differences in Newborn Cry Patterns of German, French Babies Evident Very Early, Study Shows
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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.

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