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Babies start learning language in the womb: Study

London, Jan 4, 2013, PTI: 21:12 IST
Babies begin learning language in the womb from the mother, say scientists who found that infants can discriminate between vowel sounds even before they are born.

Previously, it was believed that newborns begin to discriminate between language sounds within their first months of life.

In a new study, scientists discovered that babies have the capacity to learn and remember elementary sounds of their language from their mother during the last 10 weeks of pregnancy, the Daily Mail reported.

Babies only hours old are able to differentiate between sounds from their native language and a foreign language, scientists found.

The study indicates that babies begin absorbing language while still in the womb, earlier than previously thought.

“We have known for over 30 years that we begin learning prenatally about voices by listening to the sound of our mother talking,” said Christine Moon, a professor of psychology at Pacific Lutheran University, who led the research.

“[But] this is the first study that shows we learn about the particular speech sounds of our mother’s language before we are born,” Moon said.

Forty girls and boys, about 30-hours-old, were studied in Tacoma and Stockholm, Sweden. The babies heard either Swedish or English vowels and they could control how many times they heard the vowels by sucking on a dummy connected to a computer.

Vowel sounds were chosen for the study because they are prominent, and the researchers thought they might be noticeable in the mother’s ongoing speech, even against the noisy background sounds of the womb.

In both countries, the babies at birth sucked longer for the foreign language than they did for their native tongue, regardless of how much postnatal experience they had. This indicated to researchers that they were learning the vowel sounds in utero.

“We thought infants were ‘born learning’ but now we know they learn even earlier. They are not phonetically naive at birth,” Patricia Kuhl, co-author and co-director of the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences at the University of Washington, added.

“We want to know what magic they put to work in early childhood that adults cannot. We can’t waste that early curiosity. The mother has first dibs on influencing the child’s brain,” Kuhl said.

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