Newborn babies whose parents speak a tonal language cry in higher melodic patterns compared to newborns whose parents speak non-tonal languages, according to a new German study published in the journals Speech, Language and Hearing and Journal of Voice.
Tonal languages, such as Mandarin Chinese, rely on the pitch of one’s voice to determine meaning. For example, a seemingly identical word can mean completely different things depending on whether it is pronounced with high pitch, low pitch, or a specific pitch fluctuation.
While all tonal languages are complicated, some are much more complex than others. Mandarin, China’s official language, features four characteristic sounds, but Lamnso, the language of the Nso — a group of people living mostly in the grasslands of Northwest Cameroon — possesses eight tones.
“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,” said lead author Professor Kathleen Wermke, head of the Center for Pre-speech Development and Developmental Disorders at the University of Würzburg (Department of Orthodontics).
The findings show that the infants of the Nso in Cameroon exhibited 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 crying episode was more intensive in the Nso babies compared with those of German-speaking mothers.
“Their crying sounds more like chanting,” said Wermke. The results were similar for neonates from Peking, China — but to a somewhat lesser degree.
The findings support the theory that the building blocks of future language begin before birth, not just when infants begin to babble or to produce their first words. Having had ample opportunity to become acquainted with their mother’s language while still in the womb, neonates exhibit the language’s melodic patterns in their cries.
At the same time, the researchers found that neonates exhibit a high degree of cross-cultural universality in their crying.
In another study, for example, the researchers compared 55 neonates from Peking, China to 21 Nso neonates from Cameroon. The neonates from Peking had developed surrounded by all influences of modern civilization, such as radios, television, smart phones. On the other hand, the children of the Nso were born in a rural environment where none of the technical achievements of modern times are to be found.
“The fact that despite these cultural differences both tonal language groups exhibited similar effects in comparison with the non-tonal German group indicates that our interpretation of data points in the right direction,” said Wermke.
With all due caution, these results could even suggest that genetic factors are involved in the process in addition to external factors. “Of course, it remains undisputed that neonates are able to learn any language spoken in the world, no matter how complex it is,” said Wermke.
Source: University of Würzburg