Study: Babies Know Native, Foreign Language Sounds At Birth

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A new study suggests that babies can tell the difference between their native tongue, and a foreign language. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

A new study suggests that babies can tell the difference between their native tongue, and a foreign language. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)


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Tacoma, Wash. (CBS SEATTLE) – At birth, babies can detect the difference in sounds between their native tongue and a foreign language.

According to Live Science, forty babies were examined — an even mix of girls and boys — in Tacoma, Wash., and Stockholm, Sweden. At about 30 hours old, the infants in the study listened to vowel sounds in their native language and in foreign languages. The babies’ interest in the sounds was measured by how long they sucked on a pacifier wired to a computer.

The study found that, in both countries, the infants listening to unfamiliar sounds sucked on the pacifier for longer than they did when exposed to their native tongue, suggesting they could differentiate between the two.

Lead author of the study, Christine Moon, a professor of psychology at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, said the results show that fetuses can learn prenatally about the particular speech sounds of a mother’s language.

“This study moves the measurable result of experience with speech sounds from six months of age to before birth,” Moon told Live Science.

“The mother has first dibs on influencing the child’s brain,” researcher Patricia Kuhl, of the University of Washington, said in the statement. “The vowel sounds in her speech are the loudest units and the fetus locks onto them.”

Janet Werker is a psychologist at Vancouver’s University of British Columbia studies how babies learn languages. Some of her recent work was aimed at investigating the claim that growing up bilingual can confuse a baby and make learning to speak more difficult.

However, Werker and her colleagues found the opposite: Rather than causing any difficulties, learning two languages at once may confer cognitive advantages to babies, including not just special auditory sensitivity, but enhanced visual sensitivity as well.

The researchers hope new studies will uncover more about how humans learn from such an early age. The new research, which will be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Acta Paediatrica, could shed light on previously unknown ways that newborns soak up information.

“We want to know what magic they put to work in early childhood that adults cannot,” Kuhl said. “We can’t waste that early curiosity.”

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