It’s True! Babies Learn Language While In Utero

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Updated March 2, 2017
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For years and years, soon-to-be parents have asked themselves the same question, “Can baby hear us?” and for just as long the question has gone unanswered. Now, however, researchers have finally come to a conclusion and it’s sure to be one that mom and dads-to-be are over the moon about!

Newborns are much more attuned the the sound of the native language than we ever thought, linguists say. Newborns can pick up on distinctive sounds of their mother tongue while in utero.

The unbelievable research was led by Christine Moon, a professor of psychology at Pacific Lutheran University. “We have known for over 30 years that we begin learning prenatally about voices by listening to the sound of our mother talking,” Moon said. " This is the first study that shows we learn about the particular speech sounds of our mother’s language before we are born."

Prior to the study, it was widely believed that infants learned small parts of speech after they had left the womb. This study states the opposite. “This study moves the measurable result of experience with individual speech sounds from six months of age to before birth,” she said.

Seriously — how incredible? All the time the proud parents have spent singing and talking to their little babe are worth every moment (not like we’d suggest you stop doing it otherwise - it’s important to have a connect to your child pre-birth).

For her study, Moon tested newborn infants shortly after birth while still in the hospital in two different locations: Madigan Army Medical Center in Tacoma, Washington, and in the Astrid Lindgren Children’s Hospital in Stockholm, Sweden. Infants heard either Swedish or English vowels and linguists could control how many times they heard the vowels by sucking on a pacifier connected to a computer.

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In both countries, the babies listening to the foreign vowels sucked more, than those listening to their native tongue regardless of how much postnatal experience they had. This indicated to researchers that they were learning the vowel sounds in utero.

“These little ones had been listening to their mother’s voice in the womb, and particularly her vowels for ten weeks. The mother has first dibs on influencing the child’s brain ,” said Patricia Kuhl, Endowed Chair for the Bezos Family Foundation for Early Childhood Learning and Co-Director of the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences. “At birth, they are apparently ready for something novel.”

But we’re not the only ones amazed by what the research showed, “This is a stunning finding,” said Kuhl. “We thought infants were ‘born learning’ but now we know they learn even earlier. They are not phonetically naïve at birth.”

Prior to the kinds of studies like this one, it was assumed that newborns were “blank slates” and now, we know that is not the case.

So, as if you needed any more incentive to hum, drum or even chat with baby on the side, here’s fool-proof scientific reinforcement that it’s good for baby!

Would the findings of this study have mattered to you one way or the other?

Please note: The Bump and the materials and information it contains are not intended to, and do not constitute, medical or other health advice or diagnosis and should not be used as such. You should always consult with a qualified physician or health professional about your specific circumstances.

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