Can babies cry in French, German, English? When do they start to develop their own dialects, accents, even individual voices? To learn about the science of language development in infants, I reached out to Marilyn Vihman, professor of linguistics at the University of York.
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CARA SANTA MARIA: Hi everyone. Cara Santa Maria here. In 2009, a German team of researchers published a study entitled "Newborns' Cry Melody is Shaped by their Native Language." Now, the popular news media had a field day with this paper, claiming that we now know babies cry with accents! Well, this is a fascinating discovery. But as I started digging around, I couldn't find any other studies that said the same thing. So I reached out to Marilyn Vihman, professor of linguistics at the University of York. She wrote the book on language development in children, literally. It's called Phonological Development: The Origins of Language in the Child.
MARILYN VIHMAN: The article that you’re referring to does provide evidence that babies learning French have more rising intonation patterns and German babies have fewer of them in their cry. And that’s the first time I’ve heard such a finding. As far as I know no one’s replicated it.
CSM: But that's an important part of the scientific method. When a new finding is published that turns a field of inquiry on its ear, it's up to the researchers in that field to question it, look at it critically, and remain skeptical until it can be found again and again. In a way, science is a pretty conservative activity.
MV: Another funny thing about the study is, I don’t know that babies can control their vocal production, their cry in such a way that it matches what they’ve been hearing in the womb at birth. Now this article says that they can. To me, that’s a big surprise. And I guess I’d like to know more about it.
CSM: I would too. And I have to say, I'm a little surprised that babies can hear much at all in the womb. I guess I always thought that that was an old wive's tale. But Marilyn told me that there's a lot of research to back it up.
MV: Babies, first of all, show recognition of their mother’s voice as opposed to that of another female. They recognize the rhythms of their own language as opposed to a language that has quite different rhythm, that’s been shown a number of times. And what is perhaps most amazing, and again this was in the 1980s that it was shown, if the mother reads a particular story to a baby over and over again in the last weeks of pregnancy, the baby will discriminate between that story and a different story after birth, shortly after birth. So babies are learning in the womb, there’s no question.
CSM: That's amazing. So we know that babies can hear particular voices and discriminate them from others, even while they're still in the womb. But most researchers agree that babies don't have the required muscular control to actively emulate what they hear, which is why it seems so incredible that they could cry in language-specific ways. Marilyn says that she's researched dialect development in children, and she and her colleagues haven't been able to detect perceptible differences until after 12 months of age. So by three years, almost anyone can tell where little kids are from, based on how they talk.
MV: Babies babble in more or less the same way, everywhere in the world. And that is the one sort of clearly maturational part of speech development. Once the baby is ready in terms of neuromuscular control, I would say, neurophysical control, they start saying ‘da-da-da’ or ‘ba-ba-ba.’ Something that sounds like the syllables of an adult language. And that happens about the same time as far as I know all over the world, and it sounds pretty much the same.
CSM: What were your first words? Did you have an accent when you said them? Let me know on Twitter, Facebook, or leave a comment right here on The Huffington Post. Come on, talk nerdy to me!