Newborn babies may begin their journey toward language acquisition even before they are born, according to a study recently published in Science Advances. Researchers at the University of Padova found evidence that exposure to language in the womb can shape the neural activity of infants, potentially influencing their language learning abilities later in life.
Previous studies have shown that unborn babies can start hearing sounds outside of their mother’s body by around seven months of gestation. They can recognize their mother’s voice and even pick up on the rhythms and melodies of speech heard while in the womb. However, the specific impact of language exposure before birth on a newborn’s brain had remained unclear.
In a study led by Benedetta Mariani and her colleagues, 33 newborns with native French-speaking mothers were monitored using encephalography (EEG) shortly after birth. The infants were exposed to French, English, and Spanish versions of the children’s story, “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” as the researchers measured their neural activity.
To track the brain’s response to language, the researchers placed caps with electrodes on the newborns’ heads, targeting areas associated with auditory and speech perception. The study included periods of silence before and after the language exposure, allowing the researchers to compare the effects of language stimulation on the infants’ brain activity.
The key finding of the study was that newborns who listened to French last exhibited increased long-range temporal correlations (LRTCs) in their brain oscillations. These LRTCs are associated with speech perception and processing. In other words, exposure to the French language shortly after birth had a measurable impact on the infants’ neural activity.
The researchers used a method called detrended fluctuation analysis (DFA) to measure the strength of LRTCs in the infants’ brain activity. They observed that LRTCs were enhanced specifically in the theta band, which is associated with syllable-level speech units. This finding aligns with the idea that infants’ brains are attuned to the linguistic elements they were exposed to in utero.
Furthermore, the study investigated whether the impact of language exposure was specific to the language heard prenatally. Infants who listened to French showed a significant increase in LRTCs after exposure, while those exposed to Spanish or English did not exhibit the same effect. This suggests that prenatal language experience plays a role in shaping infants’ neural responses to language.
“Together, these results provide the most compelling evidence to date that language experience already shapes the functional organization of the infant brain, even before birth,” the researchers wrote. “Exposure to speech leads to rapid but lasting changes in neural dynamics, enhancing LRTCs and thereby increasing infants’ sensitivity to previously heard stimuli. This facilitatory effect is specifically present for the language and the frequency band experienced prenatally. These results converge with observations of increased power in the electrophysiological activation of the newborn brain after linguistic stimulation and suggest that the prenatal period lays the foundations for further language development.”
While the study provides compelling evidence that language experience can shape the organization of the infant brain before birth, it’s important to note that this impact is not deterministic. Children exposed to different languages or those with limited prenatal language exposure can still acquire language later in life.
The study’s findings shed light on the remarkable capacity of newborns to learn and process language quickly, even before they enter the world. The research also suggests that the human brain may already be optimized for efficient language processing, underpinning the impressive language learning abilities observed in infants.
This study opens the door to future research to explore whether similar neural dynamics occur in response to exposure to other auditory stimuli, such as music, during pregnancy, and how these early experiences influence cognitive development in newborns.
The study, “Prenatal experience with language shapes the brain“, was authored by Benedetta Mariani, Giorgio Nicoletti, Giacomo Barzon Maria Clemencia Ortiz Barajas, Mohinish Shukla, Ramón Guevara, Samir Simon Suweis, and Judit Gervain.