The BBC News Health section reports today on new work by a group of German researchers who studied the cries of 60 babies born to families speaking French and German. The researchers claim that babies begin to pick up the nuances of their parents’ accents while still in the womb. This acquisition is reflected in the intonation of their cries (which can be heard on the article page):
The French newborns cried with a rising “accent” while the German babies’ cries had a falling inflection.
The “melody” of the cry seems to be particularly significant in that it is one of the only aspects of a mother’s speech that a neonate is able to imitate. Imitation is crucial to communication between mother and infant, as Kathleen Wermke, who led the research, points out: “Newborns are highly motivated to imitate their mother’s behaviour in order to attract her and hence to foster bonding.”
Furthermore, she says, these data support the importance of human infants’ crying in language development. The finding that the melodic contours of the infants’ cries varied based on the language they heard while developing in the womb implies that the “content” of the cry is learned and therefore not completely innate. Crying is generally thought to serve one important but limited purpose: eliciting care and attention from a parent. However, these results suggest that it may also be important as “practice” for the language acquisition process.