Talk! Talk! Talk to your children! That is the message from studies into early language development, child development experts and early childhood educators across the nation. You don’t need any special skills. There are no special tricks. Children are going to make use of all the spoken language they receive.
Through the random noises of the outside world and the beating heart and growling stomach of their mothers, babies are distinguishing the muffled sound of their mother’s voice. From the third trimester children are programmed to develop speech and language.
Many parents find themselves naturally falling into a pattern of talking to their unborn children and engaging them in one-sided conversations.
“Okay kiddo, well I’ve put off finishing your nursery long enough.
“Now if you could just remove your foot from my left rib cage I’ll promise to stop playing Ed Sheeran’s latest album on repeat and we can get this room done. Deal? Deal.”
And on it goes.
Parents are encouraged to read to their children from an early age to help develop language and literacy and assist brain development but there’s now some evidence that we can start even earlier and make a difference to our unborn children’s lives.
Professor Anne Cutler from the MARCS Institute for Brain, Behaviour and Development (Western Sydney University and the Australian Research Council's Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language) points to a French team in the mid-90s that showed a foetus in the last month could hear and respond to the rhythm of a regularly read poem1.
The result suggests that third trimester babies become familiar with recurring sounds in their mother’s voice. Fetal heartrates decreased in response to rhymes their mothers had recited during the previous four weeks, but did not change in response to rhymes their mothers had never recited.
“Reading to children has the main purpose of making reading a desirable activity for them. Otherwise we would just tell them stories; also a great thing to do, but reading specifically focuses on books and how much fun they are,” Professor Cutler says.
“Obviously the concept of books and where the story comes from and indeed any meaning at all is unavailable in utero. So there is no way to expect a love of books to be fostered by reading to an as yet unborn child. That said, there might still be some positive effect.
“So doing that might arm the mother with a way of potentially calming the baby after birth, who knows? Might be a bit boring for the mother, reading the same thing several times a day, but the payoff could be worth it!”
In 2017 Professor Cutler co-authored a study shedding further light on just how potent early experiences with language can be. The research found that children adopted early in life may completely forget their birth language, but decades later find themselves armed with a hidden advantage when they opt to learn that forgotten language.
Birth language memory
In research published in the journal Royal Society Open Science2, the study investigated the language learning abilities of Korean-born Dutch speakers and a control group of native Dutch-speakers to see whether the internationally adopted children were advantaged by birth language memory. Of the adoptee group, half had been adopted at 17 months or older (when talking would have begun), while half had been prelinguistic (under six months).
During a training period, the groups were asked to identify three Korean consonants, unknown in the Dutch language, and then try to reproduce them. The results were then rated by Korean listeners.
Adoptees pronunciation scores (attempts at articulating the correct sound) improved significantly more across the training period than the scores of control participants. In fact, even the youngest adoptee group showed evidence of this knowledge retention, suggesting that important and lasting abilities are being laid down even in the earliest months of life.
Professor Cutler says these results show that what has been retained about the birth language is abstract knowledge about language patterns.
“There were two big results – the fact that the stored phonological knowledge that the adoptees had was there even for those who were adopted before six months of age; and the fact that the knowledge generalised across types of sounds and from perception to production, showing that it was knowledge about the phonology, i.e. abstract knowledge, not simply passive traces of what the infants had once actually heard,” Professor Cutler says.
“We now know that abstract processing of language also starts in the early months. We should have expected it all along!”