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How exposure to language in the womb shapes the brain

Even before birth, our brains are taking note of the languages we hear.
A black and white photo of a person in pajamas reading a book.
Unsplash+ / Natalia Blauth / Big Think
Key Takeaways
  • Noam Chomsky’s theory of universal grammar, proposed in the 1950s, suggests that children have an innate ability for language acquisition, challenging the idea that language development is solely due to environmental factors.
  • Recent research indicates that exposure to language in the womb influences brain function, enhancing newborns’ sensitivity to the language they heard prenatally.
  • This new understanding emphasizes the importance of early linguistic stimulation for language development, with ongoing research into how atypical experiences like prematurity or hearing difficulties might affect this process.

In the 1950s, Noam Chomsky proposed his theory of universal grammar, which argued that language acquisition is biologically determined and that children have an innate ability to acquire language. The idea revolutionized the field of linguistics and changed the way psychologists view language development.

Universal grammar challenged the prevailing view that language development is due solely to environmental factors, instead proposing that newborns are equipped with brain circuits that contain information about the structure of language. We still know very little about the neurological basis of how newborns so easily acquire language.

New research published in the journal Science Advances now shows that exposure to language in the womb begins to influence brain function before birth, enhancing a newborn’s sensitivity to the language they have previously heard.

Early exposure

Benedetta Mariani of the University of Padua in Italy and her colleagues hypothesized that the brain activity of newborn babies could provide evidence of language learning; specifically, that exposure to language in the womb would have a lasting effect on neural processes after birth.

To test this, they used electroencephalography (EEG) to monitor brain wave activity in 49 one- to five-day-old infants born to French-speaking mothers, before, during, and after they heard recordings of the children’s story “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” in French, Spanish, and English. The recordings were presented in a semi-random order, such that only some of the babies heard the French version of the story last.

“We measured how much newborns’ brain activity remained high and complex not only during, but even after stimulation with different languages,” says senior author Judit Gervain. “We found that for several minutes after stimulation with the native language French, but not the unfamiliar languages English and Spanish, newborns’ brain responses remained high and had an organization that resembled that seen during stimulation.”

The researchers conclude that language experienced in the womb alters the functional organization of the brain before birth, increasing the newborn’s sensitivity to previously heard sounds. The amount or quality of prenatal speech exposure is not likely to be important, says Gervain, because “everything the mother says is transmitted to the fetus… so [they] naturally produce enough speech for babies to learn from.”

Linguistic stimulation

A mother’s voice is transmitted to the fetus as both sounds and vibrations, while other sounds, including the father’s voice, are more strongly filtered by the environment in the uterus, and thus transmitted less effectively.

The results of the new study are consistent with earlier findings that newborns prefer their mothers’ voices, and that two-day-old infants prefer their native language. They also highlight the importance of linguistic stimulation during early life, as this “lays the foundation for further language development.”

The researchers are now following up their findings by investigating preterm and deaf or hard-of-hearing infants to see how these atypical experiences might influence language development.


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