A groundbreaking new study suggests that our language learning may begin in the womb, shedding light on the remarkable ease with which newborns can develop listening and speaking skills during their earliest months of life.
Researchers at the University of Padua in Italy observed specific changes in brain patterns in newborns when exposed to speech, indicating that their brains are already attuned to their mother’s language and the fundamental rhythms of speech.
In their published paper, the researchers note, “These results provide the most compelling evidence to date that language experience already shapes the functional organization of the infant brain, even before birth.”
The study involved 33 newborns with French-speaking mothers, aged between one to five days. The babies were played audio of the story Goldilocks and the Three Bears in French, English, and Spanish.
By monitoring brain activity via electrodes, the researchers observed increased long-range temporal correlations when the French audio was played, corresponding to brainwaves associated with the processing of speech. This suggests that newborns are already capable of recognizing and absorbing the language they heard in the womb.
The researchers also found that these brain oscillations, activated by French speech, were at a frequency linked to the natural rhythms of speech, indicating that infants are prepared to begin learning language within days of being born.
“The newborn brain may already be in an optimal state for the efficient processing of speech and language, underpinning human infants’ unexpected language learning abilities,” write the researchers.
While previous research has shown that babies can hear external sounds after about seven months of gestation, this study provides a closer look at the neural activity in newborns related to language processing.
Despite the evidence that babies are capable of learning languages different from their birth language, the study suggests that the language learning process begins before birth.
Looking ahead, the researchers propose examining how other types of audio might impact newborn brain activity, similar to previous evidence that babies 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,” write the researchers.
The research has been published in Science Advances.