Funny (peculiar) thing is that the research keeps pointing to a mother’s voice as the #1 source of a baby’s language learning skills.
In fact, the information has been with us for thousands of years. Here is a brief rundown of what we know:
Maternal singing to 6 months old infants stimulated more intense and longer engagement with the mother than maternal speech
- Confucius in c. 500 BCE, hinted that the prenatal atmosphere of the mother can directly affect the behavior of an infant
- In China around 450 BCE includes music stimulation for helping to make child-bearing easier
- Plato emphasizes in 400 BCE that vibration is the most important cosmic principle upon which all other principles depend, and Aristotle observed that the environment around a pregnant woman is directly felt or perceived in some way by the prenatal infant.
- Between the years 400-600 a surgeon in India and Talmudic writers in Israel tell about prenatal development and infant awareness of the things going on around them while still inside the mother.
- Japan, around the year 1000, begins to utilize the Chinese approaches to child-bearing, including musical stimulation, and continues to develop them up to and continuing into the 20th and 21st centuries.
- In 1690 John Locke writes that a pre-born infant can think and can be influenced by stimuli in the outside world.
- By 1881, the idea that brain functions begin before birth began to become more publicly accepted
- By 1924 – the 2010, more and more researchers, including Peiper, Spelt, Hebb, Salk, Diamond, Montagu, DeCasper, Shetler, Logan, Kuhl, Meltzoff, Weinberger and countless others around the world, experiment and compare findings about the unborn infant’s ability to perceive sounds from the outside world and how music and the mother’s voice impact the unborn child’s development.
- According to one researcher from the 21st century, S.K. de l’Etoile, infant directed singing in sustaining infant attention is far more effective than listening to recorded music and Nakata, working with Trehub determined that maternal singing to 6 months old infants stimulated more intense and longer engagement with the mother than maternal speech.
You can see that there are a lot of years in the above info that I didn’t cover. It would take way too much space to put it all down and I doubt that I could even account for all of it, since there is so much.
But I would like to give a brief overview of specific research that began surfacing in 2005 because I think it is so important.
It has to do with absolute pitch, that odd term that means you can identify a the letter name of a sounded music note – something only one in 10,000 Americans can do – and the relationship to infant language learning.
According to researcher Diana Deutsch, PhD, “We’re finding evidence of an absolute pitch module in everyone’s brain, and I suspect it developed for speech. That we recognize pitch in music is a side effect.”
Research about infant pitch perceptions appears to indicate that what we usually regard as a near-magical ability – perfect pitch – may be accessible to everyone (except deaf people) and there is a small window of opportunity for infants to develop it, starting in the womb and going up to age 3. Other research says age 5-6, but they all agree that the foundation is set much earlier, in pregnancy and during the first year of life.
Apparently, English speakers lose it faster than, say, Chinese speakers, because English is a non-tonal language and Chinese is a tonal language.
The difference between tonal versus non-tonal is pretty simple and I will write about it in another article.
For now, the important thing to know is that it has to do with vocal inflections (sounds of the voice going up and down) and how in a tonal language those inflections actually mean different words whereas in a non-tonal language, those same inflections do not mean a different word.
Researchers have also found that both American and Chinese students who begin taking music lessons before age 6 are are more likely to develop absolute pitch and according to Deutsch, this coincides with the same developmental period when vowel sounds are learned.
In short, exposing an infant to different tonal sounds can give them an edge up in learning language skills, and just think what could happen if mothers were given the opportunity to learn how to use their own voices better so that they could improve the sounds that their babies were hearing?