Babies learn language while still in the womb, a new study has found. Although, previous research said that babies are ready to start learning language by their first month, the new study shows that children begin learning vowels in their native language while still in the womb.
The new study by Christine Moon, a professor of psychology at Pacific Lutheran University and colleagues shows that babies, only few hours old, show an interest in foreign words.
Brain and sensory mechanisms needed for hearing are developed by 30 weeks of gestation. Babies who have ten more weeks to stay in the womb have the ability to differentiate words from the native language (used by the mother).
"The mother has first dibs on influencing the child's brain. The vowel sounds in her speech are the loudest units and the fetus locks onto them," said Patricia Kuhl, co-author and co-director of the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences at the University of Washington.
The study was conducted in two different locations: Madigan Army Medical Center in Tacoma, WA, and in the Astrid Lindgren Children's Hospital in Stockholm. Infants heard either English or Swedish vowels.
The study included 40 babies, about 30 hours old. While still in the nursery, the babies listened to vowel sounds in their native tongue and in foreign languages. Researchers assessed babies' interest in sounds by measuring the amount of time babies sucked on a pacifier that was wired into a computer that measured their reaction to sounds.
Babies tend to suck the pacifier longer for unfamiliar voices than for familiar ones. The difference in the sucking duration shows that babies have been listening to native sounds in the womb and are familiar with it, but now are more interested in sounds that are different.
"This is the first study that shows fetuses 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," said Moon.
Researchers chose vowel sounds for the study because these are prominent, and the researchers thought that the babies could hear them over other noise.
"This is a stunning finding. We thought infants were 'born learning' but now we know they learn even earlier. They are not phonetically naïve at birth," said Kuhl.