We literally start learning our mother tongues from inside the womb, according to a recent study from the University of Kansas.
Scientists used a magnetocardiogram to study about two dozen women, most of whom were around eight months pregnant. Fetuses are able to listen to noises from the womb, though they sound “muffled, like the adults talking in a Peanuts cartoon,” Utako Minai, an associate professor of linguistics at the University of Kansas, said in a release.
Minai and her colleagues used a fetal biomagnetometer, a device that picks up on tiny magnetic fields and electrical currents in the mother and fetus. By looking specifically at changes in each fetus’ heart rate, researchers were able to tell that the unborn babies can distinguish between English and Japanese recordings from the same bilingual speaker.
“The results came out nicely, with strong statistical support,” Minai said. “Prenatal sensitivity to the rhythmic properties of language may provide children with one of the very first building blocks in acquiring language.”
But this doesn’t necessarily mean that expectant mothers who hope to raise multilingual children should blast foreign language tapes around the house for months leading up to birth. The study doesn’t suggest that fetuses are learning specific vocabulary words or grammatical structures from the womb, per se. That probably comes much later in life.