They may not be old enough to talk, but babies less than a week old know how to cry with patterns of their native language.
Researchers have known that infants have the ability to mimic speech starting around 12 weeks of age. They also show a preference for spoken language that mirrors the rhythm, melody and intensity patterns of their mother tongue.
But when they're too young to control their vocal cords or the muscles that shape the mouth to make specific sounds, how can babies demonstrate that they're tuned in to the chatter around them? Through their cries, suggests a team of European scientists.
The researchers recorded the cries of 30 French and 30 German newborns when they were hungry, having their diapers changed, or generally out of sorts. Although the babies were only 2 to 5 days old, they already cried in distinct patterns.
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The wails of the French babies started out low and rose to a higher pitch, while those of their German counterparts started out high and fell to a lower pitch. The German babies also cried with more intensity than the French babies, the researchers found. These patterns matched the intonation patterns of spoken French (in which the pitch tends to rise over the course of several words) and German (in which the opposite occurs).
The scientists said babies start to pick up on the melody of ambient language during their third trimester in the womb.