Within days of being born, babies cry in a way that reflects the language spoken by their parents.
In a study of French and German newborns, researchers with the Max Planck Society in Germany found clear differences in the tone and pitch of the babies’ cries. The French babies started low in pitch and then went higher, while the German ones did the opposite, starting high and then falling lower. According to the researchers, those modulations reflect the melody patterns typical of fluent speakers of each language.
According to Angela Friederici, one of the authors of the study, which was recently published in the journal Current Biology, babies in the last trimester of development in utero respond to noise and can sense the mother’s voice. “The sense of hearing is the first sensory system that develops,” she said, but because amniotic fluid muffles sounds, “what gets through are primarily the melodies and intonation of the respective language.”
In French, she said, a lot of words have the stress at the end, so that the intonation rises, while German is mostly the opposite. She added that “our results generalize to other languages with a clear stress pattern. English is similar to German, as it has the stress on the first syllable of a two-syllable word. Therefore, I would expect a similar result for the English- versus French-speaking infants” as was found in the German/French study.
According to the researchers, one explanation for the findings is that “newborns are probably highly motivated to imitate their mother’s behavior in order to attract her and hence to foster bonding. Because the melody contour may be the only aspect of their mothers’ speech that newborns are able to imitate, this might explain why we found melody contour imitation at that early age.”