Learning Language In The Womb

Learning Language In The Womb

Tuesday 21st February 2017

When babies begin to hear the world around them, the most important sound they'll discover is their mother's voice. This familiar noise will calm and soothe them and lays the foundation for their social and emotional development, language and speech.

Early learning

Your unborn baby will start to respond to noise sometime between the 24th and 30th weeks of pregnancy. The sound that'll have by far the most impact on them is your voice. Talking to your bump is not just a great way for you to bond. It will actually help your baby to learn. Able to hear everything you say, they will recognise your individual voice and prefer it to any other sound. They'll also be able to hear, albeit less clearly, the voices of those around you, and the effect of listening to speech will have a lifelong impact, teaching them to understand and process sound as well as helping to develop memory skills and strengthen family bonds.

'What we learn before we're born'

Newborns respond specifically to language, as opposed to other sounds. Studies tell us that they show increased brain activity when listening to speech, compared to the same speech played backwards, or silence. Given that they have this reaction shortly after birth, it's thought that fetuses have a similar response to voices and speech patterns in the womb.

In a study to measure this, pregnant women played a recording of a 'nonsense word' to their bump, several times a week, in their last few months of pregnancy. After birth these newborns recognised the nonsense word while infants who'd not been exposed to the word previously showed no reaction. Babies who'd heard the recordings also demonstrated that they recognised when the word's pitch or vowel sounds changed, and the response was strongest in the babies who'd heard the recording the most.

"Unborn babies recognise the patterns of their native language."

Mother tongue

Not only can babies recognise words they learnt in the womb, but, incredibly, studies have shown that unborn babies recognise the patterns of their native language, preferring them to languages they haven't heard before.

One study clearly demonstrated that, in the later stages of pregnancy, unborn babies could not only differentiate their mother's voice from other people's voices, they could also recognise their native language (in this case English) over a foreign language (Mandarin). So babies start to make sense of language - and make their first tentative steps towards speech and socialisation - before they're even born.

Next Steps

  • Try to spend a few minutes every day talking or singing to your baby.
  • If you're lucky enough to be bilingual, why not try out both languages on your bump?
  • Try reading a favourite children's book or nursery rhyme to your baby. They may even start to remember it.
  • See if you notice any changes in your baby's behaviour. Remember they'll find your voice calming, so expect less movement rather than more.
  • Dad and siblings can get involved too - they'll have to get nice and close to the bump to make sure they're heard.
  • If talking directly to your bump really isn't for you, don't worry, your baby is learning about your voice and language every time you speak.

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