Friday, November 06, 2009

Children's melodies

Recent German research into children's early exposure to sounds seems to suggest that newborn babies have noticeably different cries, with distinct intonation patterns linked to the sounds of their mothers' language. What is even more striking is that these patterns seem to become established before the child is even born:

The dramatic finding of this study is that not only are human neonates capable of producing different cry melodies, but they prefer to produce those melody patterns that are typical for the ambient language they have heard during their fetal life, within the last trimester of gestation.


So in other words (and helped by a news piece on Radio 4 this morning that I'll try to link here later) a French baby's cries will be closer to the melodic patterns of the French language, while a German baby's will be closer to the intonation patterns of the German language, and these intonation patterns will have been developed while in the womb. The audio can be heard by going to this link on Billy Clark's London Language blog.

More on this story here. But in this report on the same story, some interesting reasons are suggested for not jumping to conclusions about what this experiment proves or disproves:

More work remains to be done to confirm that parental talk affects how babies cry, remarks psycholinguist D. Kimbrough Oller of the University of Memphis. Newborns cry differently depending on their emotional states, which may have differed for French and German babies, Oller says. Mothers of one nationality may have allowed babies to cry longer before picking them up. Or, recording devices may have been set up more intrusively in one country than in the other. Either situation would complicate an acoustic comparison of French and German newborns’ cries, Oller notes.A related scientific debate concerns whether parents’ native language influences how babies babble during the first year of life. Oller regards babies’ babbling as a universal set of sounds largely immune to cultural or linguistic influences.

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