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Baby or bebe? You might be able to tell by the way he cries

November 5, 2009 |  9:00 am

They may not be old enough to talk, but babies less than a week old know how cry in their native language.

Researchers have known that infants have the ability to mimic speech starting at around 12 weeks of age. They also show a preference for spoken language that mirrors the rhythm, melody and intensity patterns of their mother tongue.

Baby But when they’re too young to control their vocal cords or the muscles that shape the mouth to make specific sounds, how can babies demonstrate that they’re tuned into the chatter around them? Through their cries, suggests a team of European scientists.

The researchers recorded the cries uttered by 30 French and 30 German newborns when they were hungry, having their diapers changed, or generally out of sorts. Though the babies were only 2 to 5 days old, they already cried in distinct patterns.

The wails of the French babies started out low and rose to a higher pitch, while those of their German counterparts started out high and fell to a lower pitch. The German babies also cried with more intensity than the French babies, the researchers found. These patterns matched the intonation patterns of spoken French (in which the pitch tends to rise over the course of several words) and German (in which the opposite occurs).

The scientists said babies start to pick up on the melody of ambient language during their third trimester in the womb. They can’t hear all the phonetic details of their mothers’ speech, but they can perceive the overall patterns or phrases and sentences. Imitating those patterns probably helps newborns endear themselves to their mothers, the researchers theorized.

The results were published online today by the journal Current Biology.

-- Karen Kaplan

Photo: Turns out the language of baby cries is not universal. Credit: Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times