(CNSNews.com) -- Unborn babies can distinguish between different languages and may start developing language skills in utero, according to a study published in NeuroReport on July 5 by researchers at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kansas.
The project leader, Utako Minai, an associate professor in the Department of Linguistics at the university, said in a news release, “The results came out nicely, with strong statistical support. These results suggest that language development may indeed start in utero.”
“Fetuses are tuning their ears to the language they are going to acquire even before they are born, based on the speech signals available to them in utero,” said Minai. “Prenatal sensitivity to the rhythmic properties of language may provide children with one of the very first building blocks in acquiring language.”
The study tested 24 in-utero babies of 24 different American mothers who were approximately eight months pregnant. In the procedure, an English passage was played, followed by the same voice recording of another passage, either in English or Japanese.
When the unborn babies heard the passages in English, their heart rates remained consistent. However, the unfamiliar rhythm of the Japanese provoked a change in the children’s heart rate.
Minai said that previous research has suggested that, “human language development may start really early -- a few days after birth. Babies a few days old have been shown to be sensitive to the rhythmic differences between languages.”
“Previous studies have demonstrated this by measuring changes in babies’ behavior,” she said. “[F]or example, by measuring whether babies change the rate of sucking on a pacifier when the speech changes from one language to a different language with different rhythmic properties.”
“This early discrimination led us to wonder when children’s sensitivity to the rhythmic properties of language emerges, including whether it may, in fact, emerge before birth,” Minai continued.
“Fetuses can hear things, including speech, in the womb,” she said. “It’s muffled, like the adults talking in a ‘Peanuts’ cartoon, but the rhythm of the language should be preserved and available for the fetus to hear, even though the speech is muffled.”
While previous studies had examined the effect of language on unborn babies using an ultrasound, researchers for this study used a magnetocardiogram, which is more accurate and sensitive to change in heart rate.
“We have one of two dedicated fetal biomagnetometers in the United States,” explained Kathleen Gustafson, a research associate professor in the Department of Neurology at University of Kansas Medical Center’s Hoglund Brain Imaging Center, and a member of the research team.
“It fits over the maternal abdomen and detects tiny magnetic fields that surround electrical currents from the maternal and fetal bodies,” she added.
“The biomagnetometer is more sensitive than ultrasound to the beat-to-beat changes in heart rate,” she said. “Obviously, the heart doesn’t hear, so if the baby responds to the language change by altering heart rate, the response would be directed by the brain.”
“The fetal brain is developing rapidly and forming networks,” Gustafson said. “The intrauterine environment is a noisy place. The fetus is exposed to maternal gut sounds, her heartbeats and voice, as well as external sounds. Without exposure to sound, the auditory cortex wouldn’t get enough stimulation to develop properly. This study gives evidence that some of that development is linked to language.”
“We think it is an extremely exciting finding for basic science research on language,” Minai said. “We can also see the potential for this finding to apply to other fields.”
The University of Kansas stated the following in its news release: “The study was funded by a National Institutes of Health Clinical and Translational Science Award grant awarded to the UK Medical Center. In addition to Minai and Gustafson, linguistics professors Robert Fiorentino, Allard Jongman and Joan Sereno worked together on the research project.”