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Babies begin to learn language before they are even born

The rapid pace at which human babies acquire language skills in their first year of life is remarkable. However, the role of prenatal exposure to language in this process has remained largely unknown. 

A new study published in the journal Science Advances sheds new light on this intriguing aspect of early human development. The research indicates that newborn babies are already primed for the language they were exposed to the most while in utero.

Compelling evidence 

“These results provide the most compelling evidence to date that language experience already shapes the functional organization of the infant brain, even before birth,” wrote the study authors.

This finding is a significant leap in understanding how early life experiences influence language acquisition and brain development.

Prenatal experiences

Traditionally, newborns have been categorized as “universal listeners,” capable of learning any human language. However, by their first birthday, their brains start to specialize in the sounds of their native language. 

This specialization is a crucial part of language development, but the study suggests that prenatal experiences also play a critical role in preparing the brain for auditory and speech perception.

Key to this development is the ability of fetuses, from as early as five to seven months of gestation, to hear sounds outside the womb. 

Prenatal auditory processing

Infants show a preference for their mother’s voice and native language just days after birth. They can even recognize rhythms and melodies they heard while in utero, pointing to a sophisticated level of prenatal auditory processing. 

However, the extent to which language exposure before birth influences language development has been unclear until now.

The study was conducted by Benedetta Mariani, a PhD student at the University of Padova’s Padova Neuroscience Center, and her colleagues.

The team found that sleeping babies, who had greater exposure to their mother’s native language, displayed brain signals indicative of long-term speech and language learning.

Focus of the study 

For the study, the researchers recruited 33 native French-speaking expectant mothers from Paris’s Robert Debré Hospital. They monitored the brain waves of the mothers’ babies, aged between one and five days, using encephalography (EEG).

Study co-author Judit Gervain is a professor at the University of Padua and senior research scientist at the Integrative Neuroscience and Cognition Center, CNRS and Université Paris Cité. 

“In adults, we know that a series of neural oscillations or brain waves play a role in understanding speech and language,” said Gervain. “Waves oscillating at different frequencies align with the rhythms of different units in speech, such as the syllable or individual speech sounds.”

The researchers set out to determine if newborns, despite their limited language experience, already possess a similar brain architecture and whether their brain rhythms align with the language heard most frequently in the womb.

How the research was conducted 

During the experiment, as the infants slept, recordings of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” in French, Spanish, and English were played in varying sequences. The babies wore caps fitted with electrodes, strategically placed over brain regions associated with auditory and speech perception. 

These electrodes recorded electrophysiological activity, enabling the researchers to investigate whether exposure to these languages triggered brain waves linked to processing speech elements like syllables (theta oscillations) and phonemes (gamma oscillations).

“EEG is effective because it directly measures brain activity as a time scale, in milliseconds, that is necessary to detect the temporal dynamics of neural oscillations,” explained Gervain. “EEG is fully non-invasive and well-tolerated, (even by) young infants.”

Critical new insights 

The EEG signals were processed to measure the “memory” or long-range correlations within them. Mariani noted that this analysis provided evidence of language learning, indicating lasting brain dynamics changes following exposure to language, particularly the language heard prenatally.

Gervain noted that missing out on prenatal “language priming” does not necessarily lead to developmental setbacks. While prenatal language experience supports language development, it is not the sole determinant of developmental outcomes.

Future research

“We are investigating and following up on infants at various ages to see whether and how these neural mechanisms support later language development,” said Gervain. “[EEG] can be used across the life span, so we could use the same method and study design for the various ages we studied in the bigger project.”

“This technique could certainly help us in the future to quantify how the learning abilities change with the baby’s age, and which frequency bands are targeted by the language learning at different ages,” said Mariani.

Gervain described how babies that are one day, six months or two years old exhibit different patterns of brain activity, as postnatal experience continues to fine-tune their neural oscillations. 

Future studies focusing on these patterns at different life stages could reveal key language development milestones, like learning words, offering profound insights into human language acquisition.

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