Babies can distinguish between different languages while still in the womb, study finds

Babies are able to recognise the difference between English and Japanese a month before they are born , a scientific study published in the journal NeuroReport, has found.


The study, conducted by a team at the University of Kansas, used a sample of 24 women in the US, all around eight months pregnant, to test whether foetuses responded differently to the rhythm of a language that was new to them.

The languages used were English and Japanese, which have very different rhythms; English is spoken in irregular bursts resembling Morse code, while Japanese is characterised by a more regular tempo.

The researchers played an audio clip in Japanese followed by one in English, spoken by the same bi-lingual speaker. Then, using one of just two fetal biomagnetometers available in the US fitted to the maternal abdomen, they measured the babies’ heartbeats, breathing and other body movements in response the the audio.

The results showed that the babies’ heart rates changed when they heard the unfamiliar Japanese, but that there was no variation when they heard the English – demonstrating that they recognised a rhythmical difference between the two.

One previous study using ultrasound technology has yielded similar results but the University of Kansas study marks the first time the finding has been made  using the most accurate technology available.

“The previous study used ultrasound to see whether fetuses recognised changes in language by measuring changes in fetal heart rate,” said Utako Minai, associate professor of linguistics at the University of Kansas and the lead researcher on the study.

“The speech sounds that were presented to the fetus in the two different languages were spoken by two different people in that study. They found that the fetuses were sensitive to the change in speech sounds, but it was not clear if the fetuses were sensitive to the differences in language or the differences in speaker, so we wanted to control for that factor by having the speech sounds in the two languages spoken by the same person.”

“The biomagnetometer is more sensitive than ultrasound to the beat-to-beat changes in heart rate,” she said.

Experts say the study indicates that language development begins before birth – and will pave the way for further research in this area.

“These results suggest that language development may indeed start in utero,”  said Minai.

“Foetuses are tuning their ears to the language they are going to acquire even before they are born, based on the speech signals available to them in utero.

“Pre-natal sensitivity to the rhythmic properties of language may provide children with one of the very first building blocks in acquiring language.

“We think it is an extremely exciting finding for basic science research on language. We can also see the potential for this finding to apply to other fields.”

Source: The University of Kansas


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