Monday, November 9, 2009

Would you believe that babies cry in different accents?

I'm amazed at a recent report.

Newborn babies cry with regional 'accents' copied from their mothers, researchers have shown.

An astonishing new study found that the screams of a five-day-old French baby have a distinct Gallic twang, while German babies have a Teutonic quality to their yells.

The discovery suggests that babies are eavesdropping on their parent's conversations while still in the womb and are picking up their accents.

. . .

Dr Kathleen Wermke of the University of Wurzburg, Germany and colleagues studied the patterns of baby cries in the first five days of life.

Newborn babies tend to have simple cries that rise and then fall. But as the days and weeks pass, their cries become more sophisticated - varying in pitch and length.

The scientists digitally recorded the cries of 30 French and 30 German hungry babies and used computer software to analyse the results.

The French baby cries tended to start low and then rise in pitch, the researchers reported in the journal Current Biology. In contrast, the German baby cries tended to start high and then drop in pitch.

Dr Wermke said the patterns mirrored the intonation of French and German speakers.

'French is a very distinctive with respect to intonation,' she said.

'If you listen to French speakers you can hear a rise in pitch in words and phrases. In German speakers there is a fall.'

She believes that babies are listening to their mother's voice in the last three months of pregnancy - and copying the patterns of speech when they cry.

. . .

The German research is challenging long held views about how babies learn to speak. Most linguists believe that the building blocks of language appear around the third month, when babies begin babbling and making distinctive sounds.

But Dr Wermke's team believes the seeds to language are found in the cries of newborn babies.

'We think that language development starts with crying,' she said.

There's more at the link.

It may be unduly simple of me, but I find that astonishing. To think that babies, straight out of the womb, eyes barely open, are imitating the accents they've heard around them for the past three months, even though they can't understand a word!

Truly, sometimes the mind boggles . . .


1 comment:

LabRat said...

Understanding is not necessary; the ear begins shaping the range of things it identifies as "noise" to be processed crudely and "language" to be parsed finely very early. If the language you hear does not contain certain distinct phonemes that exotic languages poseess, you'll lose your ability to ever distinguish them before you can walk.

I had not imagined that it was THIS early, though.