Babies cry in their parents’ language

My daughter, asleep, after a crying session

In 2009 Mample and collaborators published a paper regarding the language of infants’ cry.

They analyzed the cries of 30 French and 30 German newborns. Babies were 3-4 days old, they were healthy, with normal hearing from a strictly monolingual (French or German) family background. Cry recordings were made during pain-free, normal mother-child interactions (while changing diapers, before feeding, or while calming the spontaneously fussy baby). In total, 2500 cries were recorded.

The study focused on a possible influence of the surrounding language on newborns’ sound production, by analyzing melody contours of newborns’ crying.

The observed melody contours of French and German newborns’ crying show that they not only have memorized the main intonation patterns of their respective surrounding language, but are also able to reproduce these patterns in their own cry.

French newborns produced more rising (low to high) contours, on the contrary, German babies produced more falling (high to low) ones.

These patterns are consistent with the intonation patterns observed in both of these languages. In French, intonation is characterized by a pitch rise toward the end. German intonation, on the other side, exhibits a falling melody contour. The newborns examined learned these characteristics of their mother tongue by listening to it prenatally.

The outcomes of the study are mainly two. First, newborns seem capable of an independent control of frequency and intensity of their voice. Second, and more importantly, if newborns’ cries were constrained by the respiratory cycle, then they should always follow a falling pattern, a simple physiological consequence of the rapidly declining subglottal pressure during expiratory phonation. The present data show that German and French infants produce different types of cries, even though they share the same physiology. That is an indication that babies’ cry melody patterns are already a product of a well-coordinated respiratory-laryngeal activity under the control of neurophysiological mechanisms.

Newborns are probably highly motivated to imitate their mother’s behavior in order to attract her and therefore to foster bonding. The most significant outcome of this research is that babies, in their own sound production, already reproduce some of the features of the specific language that they were exposed to prenatally.

Reference:

Mampe et al., “Newborns’ Cry Melody Is Shaped by Their Native Language”, Current Biology (2009) 12:1994-1997, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2009.09.064

Published by Martina Bodner

Biotechnologist, PhD Candidate in Food Chemistry, Science Teacher, STEM and autism advocate, mother.

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