Babies cry in their native language, say scientists

Candy Bellinger

To the untrained ear, a baby crying might sound the same whether you're in England or Egypt. But according to a new study, the cry of a newborn baby mimics the intonation of their native tongue. And researchers say that this latest revelation indicates that the first elements of language are picked up in the womb and suggests that babies develop a capacity for language much earlier than was previously thought.

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The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Würzburg in Germany, recorded and analysed the cries of 60 healthy babies - 30 from French-speaking families and 30 from German-speaking families. Analysis reportedly revealed clear differences in the shape of the babies' "cry melodies". Those from the French-speaking families tended to cry with a rising melody contour, whereas the German babies produced a falling melody – patterns consistent with the differences between the two languages.

Professor Angela Friederici, of the Max Planck Insitute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, explained: "When you say the word 'Papa' in German, for instance, you stress the first syllable, whereas in French it is the other way round. The same pattern is typical for longer phrases."

While previous studies have shown that infants are able to match vowel sounds spoken by adults, the skill depends on sophisticated vocal control and is therefore only possible for babies from the age of 12 weeks onwards.

Professor Wermke, whose research was published in the journal Current Biology, said: "Our study shows the importance of crying for seeding language development. Imitation of melody contour is something that they can do immediately after birth."

But not all academics agree. Professor John Wells, a linguistics specialist at University College London, told the Times: "Biologists and medical people are always talking rubbish about language because they don't understand it. Both German and French use rises and falls, as does English. It's easy to compare syntax and word order but this just sounds too vague."

What do you think? Do babies cry with an accent or is this latest research all "too vague"?