Language Lessons Start in the Womb

New research is teasing out more of the profoundly miraculous process of language learning in babies. And it turns out that even more is going on prenatally than previously suspected.

By looking at international adoptees — babies who were adopted soon after birth and who grow up hearing a different language than what they heard in the womb — researchers can see how what babies hear before and soon after birth affects how they perceive sounds, giving new meaning to the idea of a “birth language.”

Experts have known for some time that newborns prefer to listen to voices speaking the language that they’ve been listening to in the womb, said Anne Cutler, a psycholinguist who is a professor at the Marcs Institute for Brain, Behaviour and Development at Western Sydney University, in Australia.

Newborns can recognize the voices they’ve been hearing for the last trimester in the womb, especially the sounds that come from their mothers, and prefer those voices to the voices of strangers. They also prefer other languages with similar rhythms, rather than languages with very different rhythms. (Newborns indicated 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.)

Read more: NY Times

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