Though she is nestled safely in the womb, your baby is already listening to you by the last trimester of pregnancy. At birth, according to new research, infants have already picked up their parents’ “accents,” – and these can be distinguished by listening to the way their cries rise and fall in pitch.
The research examined 60 babies—half of whom were French, the rest German. Their natural cries were recorded when they were three to five days old. No babies were pinched or otherwise prodded to produce crying.
French babies tended to cry in a pattern in which the pitch started low, then rose. But German babies did the opposite. And these patterns reflect the intonations of their mother’s language, suggesting that even before birth, babies are gathering information that will help them learn to talk.
Previous research on babbling patterns suggested that linguistic differences show up as early as seven months—but this study suggests that language learning begins even before that.
This research gives even more support to the idea that parents should talk to their babies from the start. The number of words a child hears directed towards him has a profound effect on his vocabulary.
Research has found that poor parents tend to talk less to their children—one study found that they heard less than half the number of words spoken to them that children of professionals did. By preschool, the poor kids had half the vocabulary of the professional children. This obviously puts them at a huge educational disadvantage even before they get to school.
So sing, talk, coo—whatever you do, interact verbally right away. And don’t worry about “baby talk”—the reason people talk that way to babies instinctively is because it helps language learning, no matter what language is involved.