Babies have the ability to hear long before they are born. The fetus first responds to loud noises after 16 weeks gestation. Sensitivity to sound will continue to develop and improve, with responses to music and voices after 24 weeks gestation.1 At birth, newborns prefer their mother’s voice over the voices of other women. They also prefer listening to passages in their mother’s native language, and they spend more time listening to music that they have heard previously when they are given the choice.2 Additionally, infants pick out melodic patterns from their mother’s native language and may even imitate these patterns when they cry. In fact, researchers studied German and French babies two to five days after birth and found that German newborns produced cries with a falling melody contour, similar to the melodic contour that German speakers make when they utter a sentence. In contrast, French babies produced typically French-sounding cries with a rising intonation.3
The Newborn Senses: Hearing
Newborns are predisposed to learn language and also focus more on language when adults use infant-directed speech. Infant-directed speech, or baby-talk, is the slow, repetitive, musical mode of talking that many adults use to address an infant. When 2-day-old infants could control what they heard by turning their head towards a certain speaker, these infants preferred infant-directed speech to adult-directed speech.4 This special way of speaking helps babies learn about adult emotions and helps them decipher language.5 Infant-directed speech can even help adults listening to a foreign language to better ascertain a speaker’s emotions.6 Cognitive neuroscientists have also observed that when compared to adult-directed speech, infant-directed speech increases the blood flow to the frontal area of three-month-old babies’ brains, and causes stronger responses in electrical brain activity in 6 and 13 month old babies.7 Finally, babies also need quiet environments to help them learn language because they have a harder time deciphering speech from background noise than adults do.8 Adults can help babies learn language by talking to them face-to-face in quiet environments.