Babies Start Learning Language in the Womb

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By now, it’s a well-established fact that the earlier a child is exposed to a second language, the better. So, if you’re hoping to raise a bilingual child, how early should you start those language lessons?

A new study suggests that the answer may be “in utero.”

The study, covered in Science Daily, grew out of a collaboration between researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden and the University of Washington in the United States.

The researchers outfitted 40 newborn infants from each country with special wired pacifiers that played vowel sounds from both English and Swedish. The sounds changed in response to the length of time the infants sucked on the pacifiers. The infants all had monolingual mothers, and were no more than 3 days old.

Study co-author Patricia Kuhl explained the experiment in more detail in a statement to Science Daily:

“Each suck will produce a vowel until the infant pauses, and then the new suck will produce the next vowel sound.”

So, the longer the baby sucked on the pacifier, the longer he or she heard the vowel sound. In the study, the infants consistently sucked longer when presented with vowel sounds not found in the mother’s native language, indicating that they were recognized them as unfamiliar and were trying to figure them out. According to Kuhl,

“These little ones had been listening to their mother’s voice in the womb, and particularly her vowels for ten weeks. The mother has first dibs on influencing the child’s brain. At birth, they are apparently ready for something novel.”

The sense of hearing develops about at about 30 weeks gestation. After that, the unborn baby apparently begins to soak up not only music, but also his mother’s native tongue.

Kuhl called the findings “stunning,” saying

“We thought infants were ‘born learning’ but now we know they learn even earlier. They are not phonetically naïve at birth.”

So, should you start watching foreign films and playing those bilingual Baby Einstein videos about 10 weeks before your due date? If you want to, fine, but there’s no reason to think your little one would get any benefit from it. So far, the indications are that babies learn these sounds from listening to their mother’s voice. If you want to expose your unborn baby to the sounds of another language, the only way to be sure he’ll pay attention may be to sign up for language classes yourself!

Photo Credit: Wolfgang Moroder