The Loh Down On Science

Would you believe that babies learn language in the womb?

Watch your language, parents.  Babies can hear—even in utero!

This is Sandra Tsing Loh with the Loh Down on Science.

Researchers in Finland have found that babies learn to recognize oft-repeated words—while in the womb!

In the study, pregnant women heard recordings of the made-up word "ta-ta-ta" hundreds of times.  Sometimes, the word had a vowel change: ta-to-ta.  Other times, the word's pitch varied in the middle, ta-TA-ta, which is rare in Finnish. 

After the babies were born, the scientists replayed the sounds to them.  They also played them to babies who hadn't heard them before.  All babies' brainwaves were monitored by EEG.

Results?  Each baby showed increased brain activity when hearing the changed vowel—ta-to-ta—not unexpected, because Finnish has a lot of vowels.  But the unfamiliar pitch change?  Ta-TA-ta?  Only babies who'd already heard it in utero showed strong brain activity for the sound.

All of which suggests that babies form memories for language while still in the womb.

So watch your language, moms.  It's all in the book What Not to Say When You're Expecting.  Ta ta ta!

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The Loh Down on Science is produced by LDOS Media Lab, in partnership with the University of California, Irvine, and 89.3 KPCC. And made possible by the generous support of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

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