By Special to LiveScience
updated 11/5/2009 12:27:50 PM ET 2009-11-05T17:27:50

From their very first days, the cries of newborns already bear the mark of the language their parents speak, scientists now find.

  1. Don't miss these Health stories
    1. Splash News
      More women opting for preventive mastectomy - but should they be?

      Rates of women who are opting for preventive mastectomies, such as Angeline Jolie, have increased by an estimated 50 percent in recent years, experts say. But many doctors are puzzled because the operation doesn't carry a 100 percent guarantee, it's major surgery -- and women have other options, from a once-a-day pill to careful monitoring.

    2. Larry Page's damaged vocal cords: Treatment comes with trade-offs
    3. Report questioning salt guidelines riles heart experts
    4. CDC: 2012 was deadliest year for West Nile in US
    5. What stresses moms most? Themselves, survey says

French newborns tend to cry with rising melody patterns, slowly increasing in pitch from the beginning to the end, whereas German newborns seem to prefer falling melody patterns, findings that are both consistent with differences between the languages.

This suggests infants begin picking up elements of language in the womb, long before their first babble or coo.

Prenatal exposure
Prenatal exposure to language was known to influence newborns. For instance, past research showed they preferred their mother's voice over those of others.

Still, researchers thought infants did not imitate sounds until much later on. Although three-month-old babies can match vowel sounds that adults make, this skill depends on vocal control just not physically possible much earlier.

However, when scientists recorded and analyzed the cries of 60 healthy newborns when they were three to five days old — 30 born into French-speaking families, 30 into German-speaking ones — their analysis revealed clear differences in the melodies of their cries based on their native tongue.

Imitating Mom
The way babies imitate melody patterns relies just on a command over their voiceboxes they had before birth, instead of the more advanced control of their vocal tracts they need for vowel sounds. As such, they can begin mimicking their mothers "at that early age," said researcher Kathleen Wermke, a medical anthropologist at the University of Würzburg in Germany.

"Newborns are probably highly motivated to imitate their mother's behavior in order to attract her and hence to foster bonding," Wermke said.

The researchers conjecture that the development of spoken language is rooted in melody, and that these findings support their idea. "Music and language might have co-evolved for a certain time during evolution and share a primordial form of communication system," Wermke told LiveScience.

The scientists detailed their findings online November 5 in the journal Current Biology

© 2012 LiveScience.com. All rights reserved.

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments