Baby talk: early and often, according to study

As any new parent knows, babies have different cries. There’s the “I’m hungry” one, the “I need my diaper changed” one, the “where in God’s name is my blanket?” one, the “What’s that? You’re trying to sleep?” one. A trained parental ear can pick up on baby’s messages.

But according to a new study, there’s something else they could be listening for. New research shows that babies pick up characteristics of their mother tongue in utero. Analyzing the cries of 60 newborns — 30 French and 30 German — German researchers found the cries had distinct melodies and cadences, ones that mirrored the French and German spoken languages.

Specifically, German babies cry with a falling melody, French babies with a rising one (and if you listen very closely, an air of superiority). Likely little comfort to their sleep-deprived parents, but interesting nonetheless.

Why? The study’s authors say it shows that, linguistically, babies are smarter than we thought, and that even as early as the third trimester, fetuses can soak up language knowledge. Earlier studies had found that infants could imitate adult sounds, but only after 12 weeks. So when it comes to speaking to your baby, do it early and often.

The behavior, researchers say, comes from an instinctual desire to please.

Newborns are probably highly motivated to imitate their mother’s behavior in order to attract her and hence to foster bonding. Because melody contour may be the only aspect of their mother’s speech that newborns are able to imitate, this might explain why we found melody contour imitation at that early age.

Enjoy it while it lasts…

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