, PARIS, Nov 8 – A baby’s very first cry is audibly shaped by the language heard while in the womb, according to a new study.
Comparing the gurgles, coos and cries of French and German newborns, a team of scientists from both countries found that babytalk is not, as long thought, universal.
Earlier research had shown that by the third trimester human foetuses memorise sounds from the external world, and are especially keyed in to the melodic qualities of music and speech.
It was known, for example, that newborns prefer the voice of their mothers, and can decipher emotional content — anger or joy — from the intonation of maternal speech.
But even if tiny tots can perceive differences in language, it was widely held that they were incapable of vocalising those distinctions.
The new research, published in the upcoming issue of the US-based Current Biology, shows this assumption was wrong.
Researchers led by Kathleen Wermke of the University of Wurzburg in Germany recorded and analysed the cries of 60 healthy newborns ranging in age from three to five days.
Half the babies were born into French-speaking families, and the other half were surrounded by German as they grew in the womb.
Astonishingly, cry melodies were clearly shaped by the mother – and their mothers’ – tongue.
The French newborns tended to cry with a rising melody contour, while the German tots wailed with a "falling" tone, signature feature of each language, the study found.
"Contrary to orthodox interpretations, these data support the importance of human infants’ crying for seeding language development," Wermke said in a statement.
They also reinforce the idea that some limitation to acquiring language skills at the earliest age may be more physical than cognitive.
It has been shown that babies can begin imitating vowel sounds from about 12 weeks. But this skill depends on a degree of vocal control that is not possible physically at an earlier age.
"Newborns are probably highly motivated to imitate their mother’s behaviour in order to attract her and hence to foster bonding," the study notes.
"Melody contour may be the only aspect of their mother’s speech that newborns are able to imitate."