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."
Newborns and Language: Message for Parents-to-Be
Parents should continue doing what most already do intuitively, Wermke says. "Parents should talk and sing to their babies right from the beginning," she says.
''The study substantiates what we have been telling parents about the importance of talking to children [for language development]," Paul says.
Although it can't hurt to talk or sing to your unborn baby, Paul says parents-to-be should realize that there is no guarantee doing so will mean the baby will talk sooner or better than those not sung or talked to before birth.