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Did you know that a baby’s first cry is shaped by his mother’s language?

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The very first cry of neonates is marked by their maternal language. This seems to be especially apparent in tonal languages, where pitch and pitch fluctuation determine the meaning of words. Chinese and German scientists under leadership of the University of Würzburg have demonstrated this phenomenon for the first time by with newborn babies from China and Cameroon.

Tonal languages sound rather strange to European ears: in contrast to German, French or English, their meaning is also determined by the pitch at which syllables or words are pronounced. A seemingly identical sound can mean completely different things – depending on whether it is pronounced with high pitch, low pitch or a specific pitch fluctuation.

 

 
Tonal languages in China and Africa

One example of such a tonal language is Mandarin. It is China’s official language that is spoken predominantly in China, Taiwan and Singapore – by just over one billion people as of now. Four characteristic sounds must be mastered to speak this language. Things are much more complicated with Lamnso, the language of the Nso – a people estimated at 280,000 living mostly in high-altitude villages in the grasslands of Northwest Cameroon, where they practice agriculture. This complex tonal language possesses eight tones, some of which furthermore vary in their contour. This means that whoever wants to speak Lamnso perfectly should not only be able to hit the perfect tone but also to integrate specific pitch fluctuations in certain words.

Now if pregnant women speak such complex tonal languages: does it show in the crying of their newborn infants? This question has now been examined by scientists from different countries in a joint project. The results of their studies have been published in the latest issues of the journals Speech, Language and Hearing and Journal of Voice.

Like tonal languages, crying sounds like chanting

The result: “The crying of neonates whose mothers speak a tonal language is characterized by a significantly higher melodic variation as compared to – for example – German neonates”, says Professor Kathleen Wermke, Head of the Center for Pre-speech Development and Developmental Disorders at the University of Würzburg (Department of Orthodontics) and lead author of the two studies. The infants of the Nso in Cameroon exhibited not only a significantly higher “intra-utterance overall pitch variation” (the interval between the highest and the lowest tone); also, the short-term rise and fall of tones during a cry utterance was more intensive in comparison with the neonates of German-speaking mothers. “Their crying sounds more like chanting”, says Professor Wermke to describe this effect. The results were similar for neonates from Peking – but to a somewhat lesser degree.

Source: Medical news today

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