Tuesday, 14 May 2013
How Foetuses Learn Language
Babies are born with the ability to recognise familiar sounds and language patterns, according to new research. A glimpse into the fast-moving minds of infants.
Mastering a foreign language can be a frustrating experience and one that gets harder as we age. The younger you start, the easier it seems to be.
Now researchers in the US and Sweden have found evidence that we start learning language before we're even born.
The study discovered that in the last 10 weeks of pregnancy, foetuses are listening to their mothers communicate. And when they are born, they can show what they've heard.
Forty baby boys and girls - about 30 hours old - were randomly exposed to different vowel sounds that are unique to either English or Swedish. They included the English "e" sound in sweet or the Swedish "eu" sound that is comparable to oeuf, the French word for eggs.
The babies' response to each sound was measured by the strength of their sucking on a pacifier connected to a computer.
In each group, the babies sucked hardest when they heard the vowels representing the foreign language. The American babies sucked harder when they heard Swedish vowels and the Swedish babies sucked harder when they heard English vowels.
The results indicate that babies are born with the ability to distinguish different languages and are curious enough to explore the language that is unfamiliar, says Patricia Kuhl. She is one of the study's authors and co-director of the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences at the University of Washington.
"Babies are learning when they're still in the womb," she says.
"We're showing that the foetus in the last ten weeks, when we know that the auditory system is fully working, is not only listening, is not only taking note of the sounds, but remembering and learning them."
But parents who think they can accelerate the process by exposing their unborn child to an intensive audio course in Greek or Farsi might be doing more harm than good.
Babies born to bilingual mothers have shown they can equally accommodate two or more languages - but that ability is acquired through natural exposure.
"We would caution (against) adding extra things to listen to because foetuses spend most of their time in a sleep state and we don't know what providing extra stimulation - particularly loud stimulation from a loudspeaker outside the womb - might do to that developing sleep-wake cycle," says Christine Moon, the study's lead author and professor of psychology at Pacific Lutheran University, Tacoma, Washington.
"We also know that too much sound can disrupt the ability to hear and may disrupt the connections that are being made in the auditory cortex, not just the ability to get sound but the ability to make sense of the sound."