How we learn and use language is a miraculous feat that science knows so little about. Babies use language meticulously at a very young age. It could come up as surprising that babies have any contact with the outside world before they are born, but new evidence came to light which suggests that babies can hear noises from inside the womb. Not just that, they are actively involved in learning the sounds of the language their mothers speak. So, in a way, language learning starts in the womb, well before than previously thought. Now let’s break this down in more detail.
Unborn babies start to respond to noises sometimes between the 24th and 30th weeks of pregnancy. That means they begin to process sounds and distinguish among most of them, especially vowels since they are the most audible. It is interesting to note that they respond specifically to language, as opposed to other sounds. Studies have shown that newborns, immediately after birth, show increased brain activity when listening to a speech segment, as opposed to the same segment played backwards, or silence. Considering that they have this reaction immediately after birth, it is only logical to conclude that they developed this response in the womb as fetuses. It is also thought that fetuses as such have a similar response to voices and speech patterns in the womb.
In another study, pregnant women played a recording of a ‘nonsense word’ to their unborn babies repeatedly several times a week in their last weeks of pregnancy. After birth, babies recognized the nonsense word while those who were not exposed to it before birth showed no reaction.
Pre-birth exposure to language is also documented in studies which show that unborn babies develop the ability to recognize the sound pattern of their native language, preferring it to that of languages they haven’t heard before. In one study, unborn babies were shown to not only distinguish their mother’s voice from that of other people, but they could also recognize their native language over a foreign language.
Researcher and psycholinguist Anne Cutler, also a professor at the Marcs Institute for Brain, Behaviour and Development at Western Sydney University, in Australia, said that newborns, again immediately after birth, prefer to listen to voices that correspond to the language they were exposed to in the womb. Newborns showed their preferences by how long they sucked on specially rigged pacifiers that enabled them to hear one speaker versus another, or one language versus another.
Dr. Patricia Kuhl at the University of Washington described, in a TED Talk in 2010, in an experiment she conducted that babies of a very young age have the ability to distinguish all the different sounds used in all world’s languages. After a couple of months after birth, though, babies start to filter out the sounds that are not used in their native language and so they lose the ability to distinguish the sounds that are not part o their native language. Thus, a baby growing up hearing Japanese will lose the ability to distinguish between “la” and “ra,” while a baby growing up hearing Korean will retain the ability to distinguish three different ways of pronouncing a sound like “tal” that has only one way of being pronounced in Dutch.
So, a lot is happening well before babies are even born. The first incremental steps in the incredible task of language learning start in the womb. As research into language progresses, it will reveal more and more about this mysterious human ability.