TUESDAY, Jan. 8 (HealthDay News) -- Language development begins in the womb, during the last 10 weeks of pregnancy, a small new study of U.S. and Swedish infants suggests.
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Researchers noted that these skills can be demonstrated within the first few hours of life.
"The mother has first dibs on influencing the child's brain," study co-author Patricia Kuhl, co-director of the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences at the University of Washington, said in a school news release. "The vowel sounds in her speech are the loudest units and the fetus locks onto them."
Just hours after birth, babies can tell the difference between their mother's native language and a foreign language, the study authors found. They said this indicates that babies are able to listen to their mothers talk by the time they reach 30 weeks of gestational age, much earlier than previously thought.
"This is the first study that shows fetuses learn prenatally about the particular speech sounds of a mother's language," study lead author Christine Moon, professor of psychology at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Wash., said in the news release. "This study moves the measurable result of experience with speech sounds from six months of age to before birth."
The study involved 40 infants less than two days old. The babies, born either in Tacoma or Stockholm, were an even mix of girls and boys. While they were in the nursery, the babies listened to vowel sounds both in their mother's native language and in foreign languages.
The babies were given pacifiers that were wired to a computer set up to measure their reaction to the sounds they heard. The researchers assessed how interested the babies were in the vowel sounds by how long the babies sucked on their pacifier.
Longer or shorter sucking for unfamiliar or familiar sounds would demonstrate their ability to differentiate between sounds they heard while they were still in the womb.
Right after birth, the babies sucked longer for the foreign language than they did for their native language. The study's authors concluded that exploring how infants learn could provide insight on learning at all stages of life.
"We want to know what magic they put to work in early childhood that adults cannot," Kuhl said. "We can't waste that early curiosity."
The study appeared online recently in the journal Acta Paediatrica.
-- Mary Elizabeth Dallas
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SOURCE: University of Washington, news release, Jan. 2, 2013