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When Does Language Start?

New parents long for their child’s first word. That day comes, and it’s carefully documented in the baby book. (Well, at least for the firstborn.) Friends and family receive texts and status updates about the event, as the child’s language journey has begun. In actuality, language starts well before that first word. It starts even before birth.

While in the womb, through sounds and vibrations, the child hears the mother talking. Infants only one day old show a preference for real words. Vouloumanos & Werker (2007) introduced white noise, nonsense words, and conversational words to infants 1-4 days old. By measuring pacifier sucking responses, the study showed that newborns not only knew the difference between the various sounds, but they also preferred the real words. Babies recognize the speech they heard in utero.

Babies hear and remember stories read to them before birth (DeCasper & Spence, 1986). During the last six weeks of pregnancy, a group of mothers read the same passage aloud each day. After the children were born, the mother read both the familiar passage and an unfamiliar passage. The infants showed a preference for the story they had heard repeatedly in the womb.  

Newborns even cry in their native tongue. While in utero and during the first few days of life, a child listens to the rise and fall of the mother’s language and uses that same lilt when crying (Mampe et al., 2009). French babies cry with a rising melody, and German babies cry with a falling melody, mirroring the language of their mothers.

You don’t have to wait for your child’s first word. You don’t have to wait for the first babble or the first cry. Parents can talk and sing to children even before they are born, enjoying exclusive conversations, knowing that the language journey has already begun. 

University of Arizona Global Campus/Bachelor of Arts in Early Childhood Education


DeCasper, A. J., & Spence, M. J. (1986). Prenatal maternal speech influences newborns' perception of speech sounds. Infant Behavior and Development, 9(2), 133-150.

Mampe, B., Friederici, A. D., Christophe, A., & Wermke, K. (2009). Newborns' cry melody is shaped by their native language. Current Biology, 19(23), 1994-1997. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2009.09.064

Vouloumanos, A., & Werker, J. F. (2007). Listening to language at birth: Evidence for a bias for speech in neonates. Developmental Science, 10(2), 159–164.


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