Not all babies cry the same: Newborns’ pitch & melody depends on mother’s native tongue

© Kirill Braga
Babies start learning languages a lot earlier than it was previously believed, with the cry of a newborn resembling the way his mother speaks, German scientists say.

The early learning of language begins in the womb as part of maternal imprinting, a research by the team from University of Würzburg said.

They studied German, Chinese and Cameroonian Nso children to find out that a cry of a baby will be more melodic if his mother speaks a tonal language.

“The crying of neonates whose mothers speak a tonal language (Nso, Chinese, Thai and others) is characterized by a significantly higher melodic variation as compared to, for example, German neonates,” said Professor Kathleen Wermke, who led the research.

The crying of the Nso babies “sounds more like chanting,” said Wermke, head of the Center for Pre-speech Development and Developmental Disorders at the University of Würzburg.

The Cameroonian children exhibited a higher "intra-utterance overall pitch variation," or interval between the highest and the lowest tone, than the Germans.

Their short-term rise and fall of tones during a cry utterance was also more intensive, Wermke explained.

The paper, published in “Speech, Language and Hearing,” and the “Journal of Voice” magazines, said that similar results were found in babies from Beijing, but “to a lesser degree.”

The Nso language has eight different tones to give meaning to words, as well as specific fluctuations in pitch to further alter the meaning of certain sounds.

According to the researchers, their findings indicate that babies begin learning language a lot earlier than it was previously thought.

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“Building blocks for the development of the future language are acquired from the moment of birth, and not only when infants begin to babble, or to produce their first words,” Wermke said.

The German study also said that it “improved the possibility to identify early indicators that provide reliable information about any developmental disorders in this field (speech, language) at a very early stage.”