Did You Know? Language Learning Starts Before Birth

January 16, 2013

By Ofer Tirosh


Babies are far smarter than most people give them credit for. Most would be surprised to learn that within hours after birth, babies can already tell the difference between their native language and a foreign language.  For weeks before their arrival, babies can hear and listen intently to their parents words, taking in the first elements of language.

"The mother has first dibs on influencing the child's brain. The vowel sounds in her speech are the loudest units and the fetus locks onto them," says Patricia Kuhl, from the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences at the University of Washington.

Studies have already indicated that long before babies can speak themselves, they are picking up the perception of speech. Between the ages of 6 months and a year old, most babies can differentiate between common sounds in their native language. 

One study was recently conducted on American and Swedish babies between seven hours and three days old to see if they reacted differently to sounds from their native versus foreign tongues. 

The study researchers concluded, “"The results of our study support the hypothesis that language experienced in utero affects vowel perception. These results suggest that birth is not a benchmark that reflects a complete separation between the effects of nature versus those of nurture on infants' perception of the phonetic units of speech."

With that in mind, a word of advice to parents, be careful what you say because children really do pick up on everything!



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