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Babies recognize language in the womb


Newborns can already distinguish between speech and other sounds

The first words of their own offspring are a very special experience for most parents. However, by then the child has already gone through a relatively long process of language development, which according to a current study begins in the womb. Normally born children are able to distinguish speech sounds from non-speech sounds as soon as they are born.

Most children start speaking their first words between the ages of 12 and 18 months, and this is often equated by parents to the beginning of language development. But it starts much earlier. The current study by an interdisciplinary working group of the University Clinic for Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine at MedUni Vienna / AKH Vienna in the Comprehensive Center for Pediatrics (CCP) came to the conclusion that the essential language-specific areas in the brain develop in the last third of pregnancy. The last few weeks of pregnancy are particularly important for the child's language development, reports the research team.

Specialization of the brain regions for language already in the womb

Until the child speaks its first words, many adults tend to use simple sounds to communicate with the little ones. According to the current study, babies are probably wondering what kind of sounds they should be - because most people can clearly distinguish between speech and other sounds from birth. The specialization of those regions in the brain that recognize and process speech sounds begins in the womb, the research team led by neurolinguist Lisa Bartha-Doering reports in a press release from MedUni Vienna.

The hearing organ is functional in the last trimester of pregnancy

Using measurements of early brain activity with the help of functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS), the researchers were able to show that “neonates who were born mature can differentiate speech sounds from non-speech sounds the day after birth, and that the specialization of certain areas of the frontal and temporal lobes the left brain is already detectable for speech processing at this early age. “The hearing organ of the fetus was functional in the last third of pregnancy and the language-specific areas are formed in the brain during this period, explains the research team.

Last weeks in the womb are particularly important

The last few weeks in the womb are of great importance for the first steps in child language development and they have an impact on the further language course, the researchers report. Because already in the womb, the babies learn to distinguish the first speech sounds, whereby the natural filtering of the speech sounds by the amniotic fluid and by the sounds of the mother's organism play an important role.

Far-reaching effects on language development

The research team explained that tests on children born prematurely showed that they could not distinguish between speech and other sounds even at the time of their normal date of birth. The functional specialization of the responsible brain regions was also not yet available at this time. The researchers conclude that the premature babies lack the time of the past few weeks in the natural environment of the mother's organism to be able to perceive and process filtered speech sounds.

Pay attention to the acoustic environment during pregnancy

The current research results are also an indication of the "relevance of the acoustic environment in the premature and newborn wards in hospitals", reports the Vienna research group. The neurolinguist Lisa Bartha-Doering emphasizes that a sound environment similar to the situation in the womb, including parental voices and a reduction in environmental noise, can support the development of language areas in the brain of premature babies and facilitate further language development.

Implementation in the clinics

The neonatal wards of the AKH Vienna and the MedUni Vienna are already doing a lot in relation to the sound environment for newborns and "the latest results of this study will now be used to further optimize the acoustic environment in the premature and newborn wards", emphasizes the study director . The researchers published their results in the "Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience" magazine. (fp)

Author and source information

This text corresponds to the specifications of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.

Dipl. Geogr. Fabian Peters

Swell:

  • Bartha-Doering, Lisa; et al .: Absence of early speech discrimination in preterm infants at term-equivalent age. Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience; in Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience (published online July 10, 2019), sciencedirect.com
  • Medical University of Vienna: Language development begins in the womb (published July 30, 2019), MedUni Vienna



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