For the first few months of their lives, babies cry, chatter, crackle, and make a variety of other strange noises. It may be difficult to imagine that they are in fact laying the foundations for later speech with these quotes. However, there is a crucial component that proves that even their cries can be assigned to a specific language: the melody of speech – or more precisely: the melody.
“Each language has specific musical elements, which we call presentation,” says Kathleen Wirmke. Tone, in simple terms, is a mixture of intonation (melody) and rhythm. Previous studies have shown that even newborns are able to distinguish between different languages, such as German or French, using vocal cues, especially melody. With the help of these musical elements, children learn about the language in question long before they can perceive its special features such as consonants, vowels, or syllables.
Study with over 67,000 child voices
Kathleen Wirmke is a professor at the University Hospital of Würzburg in the Department of Orthodontics and Head of the Center for Pre-Speech Development and Developmental Disorders. In collaboration with scientists from the USA and New Zealand, she has now examined the voices of a total of 277 infants during the first six months of life in more detail. In total, the team analyzed more than 67,500 crying noises – the so-called hungry and crying noises -, cooing and overtones.
“We found a clear developmental pattern toward more complexity,” summarizes and lurks the result of the study, now published in Scientific Reports. According to the study, this increasing degree of complexity is an important building block on the road to language development. According to the research team, these results not only improve our understanding of early preparatory processes for language acquisition but also allow the identification of possible signs of a language development disorder.
Complexity increases over the first six months
In their study, the team distinguished between two types of pronunciation in children: crying and non-crying sounds in technical language. In other words, “communicative” crying is triggered in the presence of the mother, which results from discomfort such as hunger and when there is a desire to communicate. On the other hand, are the sounds a child makes when he or she feels comfortable and reacts vocalally. “The aim of the study was to conduct an objective evolutionary analysis of vocal ancestors in the form of melodies in healthy infants from birth to 6 months of age in all of their vocalizations,” says Wirmke. Her hypothesis was: both types of vocalization exhibit distinct overgrowth in complex melodies.
In fact, the evaluation shows that the melodies of spontaneous crying get more complex over the first 180 days of life; A complex meaning that simple (mono-bow) melodies are increasingly being replaced by poly-bow melodies, that is, the basis for the richness of the variants of later intonation patterns in speech is already laid during crying. The development was similar to phoneme that fell under the category of “comfort sounds.” The degree of complexity also increased in these, but with a temporary decrease in about 140 days of life.
Rapid brain growth is the basis
“At the end of their first month of life, the studied baby cry group shows complex tune in more than half of the cases,” says Wirmke. From single-bow melodies to multi-bow melodies in 30 days: This developmental program relies on the early maturation of the neurophysiological mechanisms underlying melody production. In fact, newborns’ brains also grow tremendously fast during this time, and newborns show amazing coordination between breathing and sound. Moreover, scientists believe that the early emergence of complex crying melodies indicates that babies have already undergone some form of training, a ‘preparatory’ development within the womb before birth, in order to begin developing melodies immediately or at the starting signal of ‘birth’.
Wermke and her colleagues have an explanation for this slight decrease in complexity between the ages of four and five months: “During this time, babies expand their repertoire of phonemic words to include new components that interact with the general melodic surroundings, meaning the vowel – and the like elements,” says Kathleen Wermke. At the same time, the larynx and vocal tract are changing, necessitating a series of adaptations in vocal production. Additionally, kids also start producing the first groups of clips to babble during this stage. “Obviously, this new developmental period causes a temporary“ regression ”in the evolution of melody to create phonemic development at a higher hierarchical level. After that, the infant begins to imitate the intonation patterns of the surrounding language (s) in the sequences of static syllables in the chatter.
Prerequisite for innovative treatments
According to the participants, the development model presented now could contribute to a better understanding of why a human infant would acquire a skill as complex as language so quickly and apparently effortlessly. What appears to be dry basic research in the field of spoken language acquisition has a very practical relevance. “Knowing this developmental process will enable us to identify clinically strong risk markers for language development disorders,” says Wirmke. She says this is the prerequisite for developing new and innovative treatments for young children at risk of developing language disorders.
http: // dx.