Those serene months spent in the womb may be where our language learning journey commences, according to a groundbreaking study. Led by experts at the University of Padua in Italy, the research sheds light on the innate ability of newborns to grasp listening and speaking skills. The findings reveal specific changes in brain patterns when infants are exposed to speech, indicating an early attunement to their mother’s language and the foundational rhythms of speech.
“These results provide the most compelling evidence to date that language experience already shapes the functional organization of the infant brain, even before birth,” assert the researchers in their published paper.
EXPLORING INFANT LINGUISTIC SENSITIVITY
The study engaged 33 newborns, aged one to five days, born to French-speaking mothers. Equipped with caps fitted with electrodes, these infants listened to the ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears’ story in French, English, and Spanish. Notably, when the French audio played last, researchers observed heightened long-range temporal correlations in brainwaves associated with speech perception and processing. This suggests an early attunement to the language heard in the womb, where external sounds become audible around seven months of gestation.
Moreover, the study found that the brain oscillations triggered by the French language occurred at a frequency aligned with the natural cadence of speech, indicating an early readiness for language acquisition.
“The newborn brain may thus already be in an optimal state for the efficient processing of speech and language, underpinning human infants’ unexpected language learning abilities,” note the researchers.
PRENATAL FOUNDATIONS OF MULTILINGUAL LEARNING
While previous research hinted at prenatal listening capabilities, this study delves deeper into the neural activity of newborns. It emphasizes that, while babies can learn languages other than their mother tongue, the groundwork for learning begins before birth.
FUTURE DIRECTIONS IN INFANT NEUROIMAGING
The researchers propose the next step is to explore how various audio stimuli impact newborn brains. Evidence already exists that infants can recognize music heard in the womb. “Future neuroimaging studies will be necessary to test whether this learning is similarly accompanied by changes in neural temporal dynamics of the type we observed here for language,” conclude the researchers.