Newborns of Bilingual Mothers Hear Speech Differently, Study Finds


Newborns of Bilingual Mothers Hear Speech Differently, Study Find


Researchers have demonstrated for the first time that newborns of monolingual mothers respond differently to sound stimuli compared to newborns of bilingual mothers. The findings, published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, indicate that bilingual newborns are sensitive to a broader range of acoustic variations in speech, but are less selectively tuned to any single language. This highlights the significance of prenatal exposure to language for early speech learning.


Dr. Natàlia Gorina-Careta from the Institute of Neurosciences at the University of Barcelona, a joint first author of the study, explained that at birth, newborns from bilingual mothers show a greater sensitivity to diverse speech sounds, whereas those from monolingual mothers are more finely attuned to a single language.


The study, conducted in Catalonia where bilingualism is common, involved 131 one- to three-day-old newborns at Sant Joan de Déu Barcelona Children’s Hospital. The researchers found that 41% of the mothers spoke exclusively in one language during pregnancy, while 59% used two languages.


Using electrodes to measure the frequency-following response (FFR) to sound stimuli, the study showed that newborns from monolingual mothers had a more distinctive FFR, indicating their brains had been more effectively trained to recognize specific sounds. In contrast, the brains of newborns from bilingual mothers were sensitive to a wider range of pitches, but without a maximal response to any particular sound.


Dr. Carles Escera, another corresponding author, emphasised that prenatal language exposure influences the neural encoding of speech sounds at birth. Dr. Jordi Costa Faidella, a joint corresponding author, noted that while these findings are significant, the sensitive period for language acquisition continues long after birth, and postnatal experiences could modify initial prenatal influences. Further research is needed to understand how a bilingual environment affects sound encoding in early life.

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