"We know that the maternal voice is the most salient external stimulus to the fetus," DiPietro said.
German researchers recorded the cries of 60 newborns born to either French- or German-speaking parents. The babies were three to five days old.
A sound pattern analysis revealed unmistakable differences in the newborns' "cry melodies." While French newborns tended to cry with a rising (low to high) contour, German newborns had a falling (high to low) inflection.
The patterns are consistent with the inflection patterns of the two languages, according to the study. French is characterized by a rising pitch toward the end of words and many phrases, while German is marked by falling pitches.
Previous research has shown fetuses are able to form memories in the womb that are important for early learning, said Kenneth Gerhardt, a professor of audiology and senior associate dean of the graduate school of the University of Florida.
A prior study noted a change in fetal heart rate when listening to a familiar voice. Shortly after birth, other studies have shown babies are more attentive to their mother's voice than other voices, supporting the idea that the fetus develops memories of the maternal voice in utero.
"This is a valid study and a clever way to look at the memories that are formed in utero," Gerhardt said. "The researchers are correct in stating these memories probably occur at the beginning of the third trimester of pregnancy. It's at that point in time the auditory system just begins to respond to acoustic signals."
Earlier studies have shown 12-week-old infants can mimic the vowel sounds of adult speakers. But younger babies don't yet have the muscle coordination to produce the level of vocal control necessary to do that, according to the study.
Mimicking melody contour is simpler.
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