We start talking around the time of our first birthday, but a new study has revealed that we begin learning language much earlier – before we have even been born.

Christine Moon, a professor of psychology at Pacific Lutheran University, led the research, which revealed that far from being a blank slate, new-born babies have already started to develop an understanding of their mother tongue. Although they won’t start babbling for another three to six months, they are familiar with the vowel sounds of their parents’ native language as soon as they’re born. Even more astonishingly, babies demonstrate a thirst for new sounds within hours of their birth.

The research, which is due to be published in Acta Paediatrica, was conducted at a medical centre in Washington and a children’s hospital in Stockholm, where 17 vowel sounds were played to babies within seven and 75 hours of their birth. Each infant was given a dummy to suck, which was attached to a computer. Half of the babies listened to vowel sounds in their mother tongue – either Swedish or English – and the other half heard foreign vowels.

Each vowel sound would play as the baby sucked the pacifier, with each suck causing the same note to play continuously until the infant paused for at least one second. When they sucked again, the next vowel would be played.

More than babbling

The researchers discovered that babies played vowels from their native language sucked on the dummy less, which the researchers claim proves the subjects showed demonstrably less interest in the sounds they had already heard while in the womb. However, those infants who heard foreign vowels sucked on the dummies for longer, revealing they were intrigued by these new sounds.

Co-author Patricia Kuhl, co-director of the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences and endowed chair for the Bezos Family Foundation for Early Childhood Learning, told Science Daily: “These little ones had been listening to their mother’s voice in the womb, and particularly her vowels, for ten weeks.” She added: “At birth, they are apparently ready for something novel.”

Babies start to hear noises outside the womb from about ten weeks before they are born, and one of the most recognisable sounds to them will be their mother’s voice. Vowels are the clearest sounds of speech, and it would appear the more clearly and loudly these are expressed, the more likely it is the infant will learn them.

Crying, with style

This is not the first time science has been astounded at the depth of knowledge a new-born has. In 2009, a study conducted by Kathleen Wermke of the University of Würzburg in Germany and published in Current Biology revealed that infants mimic the rhythm of their parents’ speech when they cry. Two groups of 30 babies born three to five days before were recorded as they cried. Half the infants had French-speaking parents and the other half German. Analysis of the sounds found marked differences in the melodies of the two groups, proving that what was once thought of as a purely primal sound was actually influenced by the language the baby heard.

“New-borns are probably highly motivated to imitate their mother’s behaviour in order to attract her and hence to foster bonding,” the researchers explained.

It certainly puts a whole new spin on the phrase mother tongue!