New Research Shows Language Experience Shapes Newborn Babies’ Brain Waves

Study finds that exposure to language in utero influences newborns’ brain activity and language learning abilities.

Babies are known for their remarkable ability to pick up language quickly during their first year of life. However, the extent to which exposure to language before birth affects their language acquisition has long been a mystery. Recent research published in Science Advances suggests that newborn babies’ brain waves are synchronized with the language they were most frequently exposed to in the womb. This groundbreaking study provides compelling evidence that language experience shapes the functional organization of the infant brain, even before birth.

The Prenatal Language Experience:

While newborns are considered “universal listeners” capable of learning any human language, their brains become specialized for the sounds of their native language by their first birthday. Previous studies have shown that infants prefer their mother’s voice and native language just days after birth. Additionally, newborns can recognize rhythms and melodies heard in utero, suggesting that prenatal exposure to music may contribute to the development of musical abilities. However, it has remained unclear whether the same can be said for language.

Measuring Baby Brain Waves:

To investigate the impact of prenatal language experience on newborns’ brain activity, researchers recruited 33 native French-speaking expectant mothers from a hospital in Paris. Using a technique called encephalography (EEG), the researchers monitored the brain waves of the babies between one and five days after birth. EEG measures the electrical activity of the brain and can provide insights into the neural oscillations associated with speech and language processing.

The Experiment:

During the study, the researchers played versions of the children’s fairytale “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” in French, Spanish, and English to the sleeping babies. The order of the languages was varied, with each set starting and ending with three minutes of silence. The researchers recorded the babies’ brain waves during these silent periods. The EEG signals were processed to measure the degree of “memory” contained within them, indicating lasting changes in brain dynamics after exposure to language.

Language Learning and Development:

The findings of this study suggest that newborns who were most recently exposed to their mother’s native language exhibited brain signals associated with long-term speech and language learning. The researchers observed that different elements of speech, such as syllables or individual speech sounds, activated specific brain waves in the infants. Theta oscillations (4 to 8 Hertz) were linked to hearing syllables, while gamma oscillations (30 to 60 Hertz) were related to distinct units of sound known as phonemes.

Implications and Future Research:

The study’s lead author, Benedetta Mariani, explained that this research contributes to a larger project aimed at understanding how language and speech perception develop prenatally and in the first few years of life. While prenatal language experience supports language development, it does not determine developmental outcomes. The researchers plan to continue studying infants at various ages to gain a deeper understanding of how neural mechanisms support language development. The EEG technique used in this study could help quantify changes in learning abilities as babies grow older and identify the frequency bands targeted by language learning at different stages of development.


The latest research in Science Advances provides compelling evidence that language experience shapes newborn babies’ brain waves, even before birth. The study’s findings shed light on the importance of prenatal language exposure in laying the groundwork for language development. While infants are born as universal listeners, their brains become specialized for the sounds of their native language by their first birthday. This research opens up new avenues for studying language development milestones and understanding how neural oscillations change with age. By gaining a deeper understanding of the impact of prenatal and postnatal experiences on language development, researchers can continue to unravel the mysteries of early language acquisition.






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