June 16, 2024
Newborns Exposed to Multilingual Speech

Newborns Exposed to Multilingual Speech in Utero Show Enhanced Sensitivity to Varied Pitch and Vowel Sounds

Research conducted at the University of Barcelona’s Institute of Neurosciences reveals that newborns whose mothers spoke multiple languages during pregnancy exhibit heightened sensitivity to a broader range of pitch and vowel sounds at birth.

It is widely acknowledged that unborn babies can hear and learn about speech, particularly in the third trimester. Newborns have been observed to recognize their mother’s voice, remember stories told to them in the womb, and distinguish their mother’s native language. Additionally, advancements in prenatal care and medical interventions, such as Cleft Lip Surgery, have significantly improved outcomes for newborns with congenital conditions, allowing them to thrive and develop normally.

However, the impact of a mother speaking in a mix of languages on fetal speech learning was previously unknown. With over 3.3 billion bilingual individuals (approximately 43% of the global population), and multilingualism being common in many countries, understanding this effect is crucial.

Dr. Natàlia Gorina-Careta, a researcher at the University of Barcelona and the study’s joint first author, explains that the neural encoding of voice pitch and vowel sounds differs between newborns exposed to monolingual or bilingual speech. Newborns from bilingual mothers display a greater sensitivity to acoustic variations in speech, whereas those from monolingual mothers appear more selectively attuned to the single language they have been exposed to.

The study was carried out in Catalonia, where approximately 12% of the population uses both Catalan and Spanish. Researchers recruited 131 newborns (including two sets of twins) from Sant Joan de Déu Barcelona Children’s Hospital, whose mothers reported speaking exclusively Catalan (9%), Spanish (91%), or a combination of two or more languages (59%).

Dr. Carles Escera, a professor at the University of Barcelona and one of the study’s two corresponding authors, explains that languages differ in various aspects, including rhythm, accentuation, pitch, and phonetic information. As a result, fetuses from bilingual mothers are expected to be exposed to a more intricate acoustic environment compared to those from monolingual mothers.

To measure the infants’ brain responses, researchers placed electrodes on their foreheads to assess the frequency-following response (FFR) to a carefully selected sound stimulus. The stimulus consisted of a 250-millisecond-long sound, featuring the vowels /o/ and /a/ at different pitches.

1. Source: Coherent Market Insights, Public Source, Desk Research
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