Babies learn language before they are even born

New research estimates it starts from 24 weeks...
01 December 2023

Interview with 

Judit Gervain, University of Padua


Pregnant abdomen


But first, a team of researchers has found that babies start learning the language spoken by their mums before they're even born. Scientists suspected that newborns could recognise their mum’s voice at birth, and that they appeared to prefer hearing their mother’s “native language”, but now, with the help of recordings of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, and speaking with Chris Smith, Judit Gervain, from the University of Padua in Italy, has found that language learning probably really has been happening since about 24 weeks of development…

Judit - It is challenging to test newborn infants. So first of all, I have to say, when I, when I talk about newborns, I really mean babies between zero and five days old. So while they're still at the hospital, indeed, this study was conducted in Paris. So we are collaborating or we were collaborating at the time with the hospital. And so each morning we went to the ward. We visited each family and proposed to the parents the study. Most parents were quite enthusiastic, and so we were lucky enough to recruit a nice large group of 47 newborns. And we showed up in their room with our equipment and a little stretchy cap that we would place on the baby's head. This is the cap that contained the sensors, which allowed us to measure baby's brain responses. And we presented the sounds in their native language, French - so these were babies of mums who spoke French during pregnancy - as well as two unfamiliar languages, Spanish and English.

Chris - What sounds did you play them?

Judit - We decided to play them sentences from "Goldilocks in the three bears". So they were just simply sentences repeated several times in English, in Spanish, and in French. We also measured their brain activity before presenting the sounds in silence. And after presenting the sounds.

Chris - And what did you see?

Judit - So we were lucky enough to actually find these results. We almost sort of couldn't believe it was too good to be true, but what we found was that those babies who heard French as the last language, in the silence period following the presentation of the sentences showed an increased response. And not only increased, but also brain response that was more structured and more similar to the brain responses during the presentation of the sound. Even though there were no sounds anymore, it was pure silence. So it's as if their brains went on processing these sounds, extracting something from it, learning from it. This wasn't the case for the two other languages. And so we hypothesised that they hooked onto French because that's the language they heard before. So it was familiar for their brains and they were able to learn more from it.

Chris - And your view or deduction, presumably, is that you saw those enhanced responses to the native language because the babies had much more experience, albeit in utero, of having been exposed to those sorts of patterns of sounds through transmission from their mum's voice when they were developing inside?

Judit - That's exactly right. So indeed we do assume that that is because they heard several weeks, several months of French already by the time they're born. And so they're familiar with the rhythm, the intonation, the sort of sound patterns.

Chris - So what are the implications of this then? Do mums and dads who play Beethoven to their pregnant belly have a point, or should we not worry about this?

Judit - Right. so definitely it is the case that foetuses learn, and they learn a lot more about sound than what we usually think. At the same time our evolution or our biology set us up in this very specific way such that mums anyway talk. So it's not only speech that they address specifically to the foetus, to their belly, but everything that mom says, right? So if she goes about shopping or talking to the neighbours or coworkers or family or friends she would just spontaneously produce enough speech, enough language for the baby to learn. So essentially, parents can't get this wrong. Simply by going about their daily routine, they provide sufficient and very relevant input for their babies to learn from.

Chris - Presumably what you now need to do is follow up and see if there is a retained difference in these babies that have been exposed to one language, and that's translating into enhanced abilities later in life because of that prior patterning of exposure early?

Judit - That's exactly right. So we are following these babies up. We tested the same cohort at six months, and we are still following them up at 24 months, both looking at their brain activity as well as their linguistic developments. So we are trying to relate this very early brain activity to later language development. The important thing here is that this is not so much a boost or an enhancement. This is something natural that happens to every child, right? So every child gets this, the, the input speech by mum that allows them to start to tune into their native language. And so at birth, we can already talk about a native language in this sense. So the baby of course, cannot speak French yet or any of the other languages, but at least the baby can recognise this as being familiar. And so there is an advantage for the native language, the language heard prenatally.


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