We know that from the day they're born, babies are taking in the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures of the world around them in preparation for the milestones ahead. Recent research now suggests that preparation might be happening even before birth. To determine whether babies cry differently depending on the language their mother speaks, Kathleen Wermke and her team at the University of Würzberg in Germany performed two studies that used acoustical analysis to delve into the tonal differences of newborn cries.
The first study, published in The Journal of Voice, compared more than 6,000 cries from 102 babies in their first week of life, some with Mandarin-speaking Chinese mothers and some with German mothers. The second smaller study, published in Speech, Language and Hearing, examined the cries of 21 German infants with German-speaking mothers and 21 Cameroonian Nso infants with Lamnso-speaking mothers, also in their first week of life. The analysis showed that the newborns whose mothers spoke Mandarin and Lamnso cried more melodically, with higher high tones, lower low tones, and more rapid pitch changes overall, than the babies whose mothers spoke German. Because Mandarin and Lamnso are both tonal languages that instill meaning in the pitch of a syllable—that is, one word can have multiple meanings depending on the tone that's used—this variation in the babies' cries suggests that newborns are already learning the nuances of their mothers' speech before they're even born. Discover more about the ways babies learn language with the videos below.