Language learning in the womb

child touching his mother lamb

Language is one of the most amazing things that we humans do, and babies learn it incredibly fast, from scratch, with no lessons, no textbook, nothing – just the people around them and the conversations they hear and participate in. We still don’t know exactly how it happens, but in two pieces we explain some interesting findings from scientific research on language. This one is about how early it all starts…

Language learning actually begins before birth: although the womb is a very shielded place for a baby to develop in and the sounds that get through from the world outside will be muffled, babies do hear things from the outside and learn from what they are hearing. Studies have shown that even in the womb babies distinguish between the characteristic rhythms and sounds of the language being spoken at home from another language. They obviously don’t understand the sounds yet, but they are already picking out what the language sounds like and how it is structured.  

You might wonder how on earth scientists were able to figure this out. Using sensitive, and harmless, recording devices scientists are able to measure changes in behaviour and physiology (like heart rate) when the baby hears different sounds, and they can use this to test whether they notice differences between one language and another. 

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