There had already been provocative research on what sounds a fetus can hear in the womb and what effect that has right after birth, with several research teams finding that newborns prefer their mothers' voices over those of other people, as in studies such as this and this. That makes sense, since Mom's voice is what a baby heard most for nine months. Newborns also prefer their native tongue to other languages for the same reason.
Now an intrepid team of scientists, three from Germany and one from France, has gone an intriguing step further: they have found that newborns cry in their native language. "We have provided evidence that language begins with the very first cry melodies," says Kathleen Wermke of the University of Würzburg, Germany, who led the research.
The idea was to extend the existing findings about what sounds babies can perceive—their native language, their mother's voice—to test what sounds they can create. Once the researchers had their recordings (no babies were harmed in the course of this research! All crying was spontaneous, due to hunger or thirst or general unhappiness rather than pain, as from having blood drawn), they set to work analyzing the cries' melodic qualities.
French babies tended to cry "with a rising melody contour," they will report in the December issue of the journal Current Biology, posted online Thursday. The cries sounded French: the pitch changed from low to high, rising toward the end of words as well as phrases within a sentence (though the final sound of a sentence has a lower pitch). In contrast, the German babies' cries had falling melodic contours. They sounded German: the pitch fell from high to low, which is consistent with the sound of German's falling melody contour, from the accented high-pitch syllable at the start of a phrase or word to the lower pitch at the end of a phrase. A French child says "papa," while a German one says "papa." There is, in short, "a tendency for infants to utter melody contours similar to those perceived prenatally," write the scientists.
"The dramatic finding of this study is that not only are [newborns] 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," said Wermke. "Contrary to orthodox interpretations, these data support the importance of human infants' crying for seeding language development."
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