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When Does Language Learning Really Start?

Medical Pharmaceutical Translations • May 5, 2014 12:00:00 AM

Our native language is sometimes called our “mother tongue”.  This makes sense; for most of us, the first person we bond with is our mother, and the language she speaks to us is usually what ends up being our native language – or, in the case of multilingual people, one of them.

As a mother-to-be, myself, I’ve been thinking a lot about this idea.  I live in a country where my native language isn’t the one spoken by most people, so it will be almost completely up to me to teach it to my kid.  Even though I’m an English teacher and a writer, it’s kind of overwhelming.  It turns out, though, that my baby might already have started his “lessons”: some recent studies have shown that we likely begin learning languages even before we’re born!

By around 24-30 weeks’ gestation, a future baby’s ears have developed and they can hear sounds from the outside world.  Neuroscientist Eino Partanen helpfully describes it like this: “If you put your hand over your mouth and speak, that’s very similar to the situation the fetus is in.”  

A study conducted by Swedish and American scientists explored this concept, focusing on vowel sounds.  The babies in the study were given special pacifiers and recordings were played of both vowel sounds from their native language and from a foreign language. Each time a baby sucked on the pacifier, a new vowel sound would be played.  Interestingly, the babies seemed to want to hear the foreign sounds more, sucking more frequently on the pacifier.  The scientists took this to mean that the babies had become familiar with the sounds in their native language while in utero, and were attracted and intrigued by the new ones.  If that’s the case, the results also give us some interesting implications about humans’ response to novelty.

I have to say, though, that fascinating as these findings are, it seems hard to tell if the pacifier sucking really did mean what the researchers think.  I’m not alone – another group of scientists decided to eschew the pacifiers and use less cute but more standard EEG monitors instead.  This time, babies listened to a nonsense word from a recording their mothers had played many times while they were still in the womb. The EEG picked up on signals that correspond to memory when the sound was played.  When there was a variation – for example, when a vowel sound was changed – the babies’ brainwaves were different.  The scientists who conducted this study were not only intrigued by the idea that babies do hear sounds in the womb and are able to recognize them later, but that they’re also able to pick up on subtle changes. 

Interestingly, the article about the second study also discusses the fact that there’s no definitive evidence that doing things like playing music in utero will make a baby smarter in some way. Babies do seem to be able to recognize music that they’ve often heard in the womb, though: The article cites a study done in the late ‘80’s that showed newborns recognized the theme songs from the soap operas their moms regularly watched. 

Hmmm….I guess this means it’s likely that, in addition to already knowing some of the basics of English and French pronunciation, my future baby could probably win a few rounds of Name That Tune involving the theme songs to “American Horror Story: Coven”, “The Soup”, “Downton Abbey”, and several French reality TV shows!

Alysa Salzberg

#children #babies #languagelearning #inutero #aiatranslations

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