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Study Shows Language Development Starts in the Womb

New research reveals that babies in the womb can already distinguish between different languages.

Language Development in Womb LightField Studios/Shutterstock
Well, this is pretty cool: According to a new study out of University of Kansas Medical Center's Hoglund Brain Imaging Center, fetuses carried by American moms-to-be can tell if someone is speaking to them in English or in Japanese about a month before they are born.

According to Utako Minai, associate professor of linguistics and the team leader on the study, research has previously shown that newborn babies may be sensitive to the rhythmic differences between languages. "This early discrimination led us to wonder when children's sensitivity to the rhythmic properties of language emerges, including whether it may in fact emerge before birth," she explained.

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While English speech is known for a rhythmic structure that resembles Morse code, Japanese has more of a regular-paced rhythm. And so after using a bilingual speaker to make two recordings—one in each language—Minai's team then played the passages to the fetuses of two dozen women who were around eight months pregnant. And sure enough, the fetal heart rates changed when the fetuses were exposed to Japanese after having already listened to English. The rates did not change when a second round of English was played instead.

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"These results suggest that language development may indeed start in utero," Minai, said. "Fetuses are tuning their ears to the language they are going to acquire even before they are born, based on the speech signals available to them in utero. Prenatal sensitivity to the rhythmic properties of language may provide children with one of the very first building blocks in acquiring language. We think it is an extremely exciting finding."

Hollee Actman Becker is a freelance writer, blogger, and mom of two who writes about parenting and pop culture. Check out her website holleeactmanbecker.com for more, and then follow her on Instagram