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September 2017


Language development may start in the womb

A new study from the University of Kansas suggests that unborn babies may be able to differentiate between languages. Associate professor of linguistics and leader of the study Utako Minai said "These results suggest that language development may indeed start in utero" (as quoted by CBS)

In order to carry out the study, one bilingual speaker made two recordings of a passage, one in English and one in Japanese, and these were played to unborn babies who were approximately at eight months gestation. English and Japanese were chosen for the study as these two languages have noticeable differences in rhythm providing a useful linguistic contrast.

By using a magnetocardiogram, a device that detects minute magnetic fields surrounding electrical currents in the heart, the researchers were able to observe the unborn babies' heart rates changing when they heard the passage in Japanese, the unfamiliar language after first hearing the passage in English, the familiar language. The heart rates did not fluctuate when the familiar English recordings were played one after the other. 

Utako Minai explained that previous research has already shown that newborn babies may be sensitive to rhythmic differences between languages. "This early discrimination led us to wonder when children's sensitivity to the rhythmic properties of language emerges, including whether it may in fact emerge before birth," he has said. It is generally believed that an unborn baby's sense of hearing starts to develop at about 18 weeks of gestation at which point the baby starts to hear not only the rumblings of the mother's gut, her heartbeat and voice but also external sounds. As Minai explains: "Fetuses can hear things, including speech, in the womb. It's muffled, like the adults talking in a 'Peanuts' cartoon, but the rhythm of the language should be preserved and available for the fetus to hear, even though the speech is muffled". (As quoted by SPUC)

This new research highlights how sensitive and complex the brains of unborn babies' are in the third trimester. Professor Minai says that the result of the study is an "extremely exciting finding for basic science research on language." "These results suggest that language development may indeed start in utero. Fetuses are tuning their ears to the language they are going to acquire even before they are born, based on the speech signals available to them in utero. Pre-natal sensitivity to the rhythmic properties of language may provide children with one of the very first building blocks in acquiring language." (As quoted by SPUC)