Can you tell the language of the mother from her baby’s cry?

Human fetuses are able to memorize auditory stimuli from the external world by the last trimester of pregnancy, with a particular sensitivity to melody contour in both music and language[1], [2] and [3]. Newborns prefer their mother’s voice over other voices [4], [5], [6], [7] and [8] and perceive the emotional content of messages conveyed via intonation contours in maternal speech (“motherese”) [9]. Their perceptual preference for the surrounding language [10], [11] and [12] and their ability to distinguish between prosodically different languages [13], [14]and [15] and pitch changes [16] are based on prosodic information, primarily melody. Adult-like processing of pitch intervals allows newborns to appreciate musical melodies and emotional and linguistic prosody [17]. Although prenatal exposure to native-language prosody influences newborns’ perception, the surrounding language affects sound production apparently much later [18]. Here, we analyzed the crying patterns of 30 French and 30 German newborns with respect to their melody and intensity contours. The French group preferentially produced cries with a rising melody contour, whereas the German group preferentially produced falling contours. The data show an influence of the surrounding speech prosody on newborns’ cry melody, possibly via vocal learning based on biological predispositions.

Source: “Newborns’ Cry Melody Is Shaped by Their Native Language” from Current Biology, Volume 19, Issue 23, 15 December 2009, Pages 1994-1997

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