The remarkable ability of infants to effortlessly acquire their native language has long puzzled scientists. A recent article in Science Advances suggests that part of the mystery may be unraveled through prenatal exposure to speech, triggering intricate neurological processes that facilitate early language acquisition.

In an intriguing study led by Mariani and colleagues, 33 newborns, born to native French-speaking mothers, were exposed to the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears in Spanish, English, and French. Utilizing electroencephalography (EEG), the researchers monitored neural activity to understand the impact of prenatal language exposure. Notably, when the infants heard French last, their brain oscillations related to speech perception exhibited heightened activity. This suggested that the newborns were already predisposed to interpret French, influenced by their experiences of hearing their mothers’ voices and, potentially, others’ voices during pregnancy.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science News provides essential context, explaining that between five and seven months of gestation, a fetus begins to perceive sounds beyond the womb. Within days after birth, infants demonstrate a preference for their mother’s voice and the native language. Furthermore, newborns showcase the ability to recognize rhythms and melodies heard in utero, with prenatal exposure to music potentially contributing to the development of musical abilities. The study’s focus on language sheds light on whether a similar phenomenon occurs.

The findings suggest that newborns possess an incredible capacity to learn and process language swiftly, even before entering the world. The study implies that the human brain might be inherently optimized for efficient language processing, laying the foundation for the impressive language learning abilities observed in infants.

While the research does not imply an unbreakable tie to the language spoken by the mother, it provides compelling evidence that the process of learning language initiates before birth, unveiling a fascinating facet of early human development.

By Impact Lab