Learning language in utero

Print edition : January 25, 2013

Scientists from the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences at the University of Washington have found that babies only hours old are able to differentiate between sounds in their native language and a foreign language. The results will be published in the forthcoming issue of the journal Acta Paediatrica.

Sensory and brain mechanisms for hearing are developed at 30 weeks of gestational age, and the study shows that unborn babies are listening to their mothers talk during the last 10 weeks of pregnancy and at birth can demonstrate what they have heard. “This is the first study that shows foetuses learn prenatally about the particular speech sounds of a mother’s language,” said Christine Moon, lead author and a professor of psychology at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington.

Earlier research had shown that newborns are born ready to learn and begin to discriminate between language sounds within the first months of life, but there was no evidence that language learning had occurred in utero. Forty infants, a mix of girls and boys, were studied. They listened to vowel sounds in their native tongue and in foreign languages. Their interest in the sounds was captured by how long they sucked on a pacifier that was wired into a computer measuring their reaction. Longer or shorter sucking for unfamiliar or familiar sounds is evidence of learning because it indicates that infants can differentiate between the sounds heard in utero. The results could give insights into lifelong learning.

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