Even Babies Have "Accents," Crying Study Finds

Matt Kaplan
for National Geographic News
November 5, 2009

Newborn babies start learning language in the womb—and are born with what you might call accents, a new study of crying babies says.

That fetuses hear and become accustomed to language is nothing new. Several studies have shown that, when exposed to different languages shortly after birth, a baby will typically indicate a preference for the language closest to the one he or she would've heard during gestation.

But recognizing a language and being able to speak it—or cry it—are two different things.

Listening to Babies Cry—By Choice

For the new study, a team led by Kathleen Wermke at the Center for Prespeech Development and Developmental Disorders at Würzburg University in Germany studied the cry "melodies" of 60 healthy newborns—30 French and 30 German.

The melodies, or intonations, aren't true accents, Wermke cautions—accents have to do with the ways words are pronounced.

The researchers knew that French speakers typically raise their pitch at the ends of words and phrases, while German speakers typically do the opposite.

(Related: "Bilingual Babies Get Head Start—Before They Can Talk.")

They also knew that melody—or in the case of spoken language, intonation—plays a crucial role in language learning. "This ultimately gave us the idea to look for specific melodic properties in newborns' crying," Wermke said.

Intonations Give Babies Away

The melodies of the newborn babies' cries followed the same intonations of the languages the babies had heard in the womb. The French babies' cries, for example, tended to end on a rising note.

"Clearly, the long process of language learning begins with the perception and production of melody by human fetuses and infants," Wermke said.

The discovery may yield more than just an understanding of how language develops.

"Further analysis of human infants' crying and other utterances," she said, "may contribute to resolving the enigma as to how language may have emerged in early [human ancestors]."

Findings released today by the journal Current Biology.

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