Lecture: Early Language Learning: Narrator: Listen to part of a lecture in a psychology class. Professor: When does learning actually begin? At birth, or can learning take place even before birth? If so, how would we know that? There are some interesting data about this question that have come from studies of early language learning. Okay, so imagine you're sitting in your dorm room. From the community room down the hall you can hear music, people's voices, their laughter, but you can't really understand what anyone is saying. And that's what we think of like for a human fetus inside the womb. The mother's abdominal wall is like the walls of your room. It allows a lot of sound to pass through, but not all of it. Apparently a fetus can hear if sounds are loud or soft and it can hear the rising and falling pitches of speech. These are elements of prosody. Prosody refers to the elements of language that contribute to its acoustic and rhythmic effects, elements like volume, stress, intonation and pitch. Different speakers tend to use slightly different prosody in their speech, and different languages have different prosodic features, such as melodic patterns, like some languages have falling intonation in the end of the sentences while others have rising intonation. Now there are some fascinating studies that show that infants can recognize some prosodic features as soon as they are born. For example, a newborn seems to be able to pick out its mother's voice based on its prosodic pattern. That suggests that the newborn had learned it while still in the womb, hearing speech filter through the abdominal wall. In other words the language-learning process may actually start before birth, at least the language perception part. But what about language production? When do babies start learning to speak? Until recently we thought the answer was around three months of age. It's been documented that three-month-old babies start producing specific vowel sounds that match vowel sounds presented to them. However, infants younger than three months have no control over the muscles in the mouth and throat that are needed for the production of vowel sounds, so it's no wonder that until recently no one has studied whether infants younger than three months could produce sounds that match their native language in some way. I mean all of newborn babies do cry, right? Well it turns out that there's more to a newborn's cry than we thought. Recently some researchers analyzed the cries of two groups of newborns, all just a couple of days old. The groups came from households where different languages were spoken. One group came from households where the dominant melodic pattern of the language is rising intonation at the end of the sentence. The other group came from households for the language has falling intonation. The cries of these infants were recorded during the course of normal daily interactions between mothers and children. Now it's always been assumed that the volume and pitch of infants' cry were determined by the amount of air in the lungs. The more air in the lungs, the higher the air pressure on the infant's voice box, resulting in a higher pitch. By that logic, all cries should generally go from a high to a low pitch as the infant releases air from its lungs and the air pressure decreases. However, the analysis of the recordings showed that the intonation of infants' cries match the specific intonation patterns of the language spoken in the household. So the researchers concluded that newborns have the ability to independently control the pitch and the volume of their cries and that they are able to imitate the prosody of the language spoken around them. Personally, I'd love to see these studies extended to newborns whose household speaks a tonal language such as Chinese. What are their cry patterns like? And what about newborns who hear African languages. But the results we already have are very intriguing. Of course we can't really rule out that the infant is picking up cues in its first hours and days of life, but it's much more likely that at least some of the learning happens in the last few months in the womb. So not only do fetuses in the womb learn the prosody of their native language, but they can reproduce some aspects of the prosody as soon as they're born.