top of page

Children are Exposed to Language Even in the Mother’s Womb

The scientific community suggests that babies, who seem to know very little or even nothing about the world they are born into, are not entirely ignorant. They assert that the process of learning begins even in the mother's womb. (Busnel, 1992; Lecanuet, 1992) Although babies are somewhat isolated from most external factors in the mother's womb, they don't appear to be completely isolated. As a natural consequence, babies are exposed to some external sounds in addition to factors originating from the mother's body, such as her voice and heartbeat. However, it's important to note that they do not experience these sounds in the same way we do because the amniotic fluid along with other factors, acts as a kind of barrier and filters out the sounds. Therefore, children can only hear sounds below 1000 Hz. To better understand what this means, it's useful to note that people without hearing problems can hear up to 20,000 Hz, a normal conversation can occur in a frequency range of 100 Hz to 4,000 Hz, and phones can transmit sounds up to 3,000 Hz. (Altmann, 1997)

We know from Anthony DeCasper's classic studies that this frequency range is enough for babies to recognize their mother's voice even when they are still in the womb and to prefer it (DeCasper and Fifer 1980, DeCasper and Spence 1986, DeCasper et al. 1994). However, the question is whether what babies learn in the womb is limited to distinguishing their mother's voice and other sounds, or do they learn more? Indeed, research shows that babies can also recognize prosody. Prosody refers to tonal, intonational, and stress aspects of language, rather than individual words or letters. For example, in a study by Mehler et al. (1988), they found that babies as young as four days old could distinguish their native language from other languages. However, what we want to emphasize here is that, when they listened to the recording after filtering it according to high-frequency sound, meaning only low-frequency sounds were left, the children could still do this. Our ability to detect individual sounds is based on high frequencies, so the fact that they can do this even in a recording filtered by high-frequency sound, means they do it based on prosodic features such as sentence stress and intonation, not individual sound characteristics. In other words, they can distinguish the prosody of their native language from the prosody of other languages, which provides an important foundation for the language acquisition process.

We mentioned earlier that in Mehler et al. (1988) even four-day-old babies could distinguish their native language from other languages. In fact, studies go beyond this, and these results can be replicated in experiments with babies at different developmental stages and from different native languages. For example, Moon, Cooper, and Fifer's 1993 study shows that two-day-old babies whose native language is Spanish can distinguish Spanish from English. We also know that two-month-old babies whose native language is English can distinguish their native language from Italian (Mehler et al., 1988), Japanese (Christophe and Morton, 1998), and French (Dehaene-Lambertz and Houston, 1998). Similarly, studies conducted with four-month-old children show that those whose native language is Spanish or Catalan can distinguish English and Catalan or Spanish from their native languages (Bosch and Sebastian-Galles, 1997). However, when they reach the fifth month, children who can distinguish Dutch from their native language, English, are not able to do so when they are only two months old (Christophe and Morton, 1998).

However, the ability of babies to distinguish languages at an early age, even in the first few days, is not limited to this. So far, in all the studies we have seen, we have looked at whether babies can distinguish a language from their native language. So can babies distinguish between two languages that are not their native languages? It seems that, for many cases, the answer is yes... For example, in a study with five-day-old babies whose native language is French (Nazzi, Bertoncini, and Mehler, 1998), it is seen that they can distinguish English and Japanese from each other. Likewise, four-day-old French babies can distinguish English and Italian (Mehler and Christophe, 1995). However, in the study mentioned earlier (Nazzi, Bertoncini, and Mehler, 1998), we also see that four-day-old French children cannot distinguish English from Dutch. Furthermore, children whose native language is English cannot distinguish French from Russian and French from Japanese, even at two months old (Mehler et al., 1988, Christophe and Morton, 1998).

All these studies actually present an exciting puzzle for scientists. The exact processes occurring in the minds and brains of babies, the mechanisms at work, what this pattern early in life means for language skills, are still being researched, and every day we learn more about it. But the common point emphasized by all is this: babies begin to learn language in the womb and are much more skillful at it from the first few days than we might have thought!


Altmann, G. T. M. (1997). The ascent of Babel: An exploration of language, mind, and understanding. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bosch, L., and N. SebastiaÂn-GalleÂs. 1997. Native-language recognition abilities in four-month-old infants from monolingual and bilingual environments. Cognition 65, 33±69.

Busnel, M. C., Granier-Deferre, C., & Lecanuet, J. P. (1992). Fetal audition. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 662, 118–134.

Christophe, A., and J. Morton. 1998. Is Dutch native English? Linguistic analysis by 2-month-olds. Developmental Science 1, 215±219.

DeCasper, A. J., & Fifer, W. P. (1980). Of human bonding: Newborns prefer their mothers’ voices. Science, 208, 1174–1176.

DeCasper, A. J., & Spence, M. J. (1986). Prenatal maternal speech influences newborns’ perception of speech sounds. Infant Behavior and Development, 9, 133–150.

DeCasper, A. J., Lecanuet, J. P., Maugais, R., Granier-Deferre, C., & Busnel, M. C. (1994). Fetal reactions to recurrent maternal speech. Infant Behavior and Development, 17, 159–164.

Dehaene-Lambertz, G., and D. Houston. 1998. Faster orientation latency toward native language in two-month-old infants. Language and Speech 41, 21±43.

Gómez, R. L., & Gerken, L. (2000). Infant artificial language learning and language acquisition. Trends in cognitive sciences, 4(5), 178–186.

Lecanuet, J. P., Granier-Deferre, C., Jacquet, A. Y., & Busnel, M. C. (1992). Decelerative cardiac responsiveness to acoustical stimulation in the near term fetus. The Quarterly journal of experimental psychology. B, Comparative and physiological psychology, 44(3-4), 279–303.

Mehler, J., P. Jusczyk, G. Lambertz, N. Halsted, J. Bertoncini, and C. Amiel- Tison. 1988. A precursor of language acquisition in young infants. Cognition 29, 144±178.

Moon, C., R. Cooper, and W. Fifer. 1993. Two-day-olds prefer their native language. Infant Behavior and Development 16, 495±500.

Nazzi, T., J. Bertoncini, and J. Mehler. 1998. Language discrimination by newborns: Towards an understanding of the role of rhythm. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance 24, 756±766.

Nazzi, T., P. W. Jusczyk, and E. K. Johnson. 2000. Language discrimination by English-learning 5-month-olds: E¨ects of rhythm and familiarity. Journal of Memory and Language 43, 1±19.


Commenting has been turned off.
bottom of page