Listen carefully to the crying of your newborn baby and you may recognise the cadences of your own voice, especially if you are the mother. European researchers have discovered that even within the first week after birth, babies imitate the melodic patterns of voices they have heard while still in the womb. And that includes the “tunes” typical of the mother tongue.

Thus, German babies cry in German — with a falling melody contour, and French babies cry in French, with a rising contour. And they all prefer “motherese”, the particular contours of maternal speech and its emotional content. They have been tuned in, suggests biologist Kathleen Wermke, during the last three months of pregnancy.

Isn’t that smart? And yet there are philosophers who see newborns as only potentially human and suitable for “weeding out” if they have defects. It is also very interesting, as Dr Wermke says, that “Melody lies at the roots of both the development of spoken language and music.”

Prior to this study it was already known that newborns perceived native language, but did not think that this affected their sound production until much later. But her discovery makes sense, says Dr Wermke:

“Newborns are probably highly motivated to imitate their mother’s behavior in order to attract her and hence to foster bonding. Because melody contour may be the only aspect of their mother’s speech that newborns are able to imitate, this might explain why we found melody contour imitation at that early age.”

This gives us just one more insight into a fascinating field of study: how language develops. It also provides a timely reminder of the special importance of the mother in this process and in the early education of the child. So, don’t rush out to work too soon, mothers.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet