Did you know babies cry in different languages?

child development language acquisition linguistics Mar 23, 2021

Ever wondered why we can identify our own baby's cry amongst others? Some fascinating research I've been reading about at uni this month has a theory that babies' cries are like a little melody, each with its own melodic arc.

German babies cry with falling intonation, and French babies cry with rising intonation (just like adult speakers' speech patterns).

Babies really pick up the 'melody' of their language from birth!

What I find most exciting is the idea that the little melodic building blocks that babies begin with develop over time to form sections of more complex cries (as babies grow the physical and mental capacity to do more complex things), and eventually form part of babies' babbling sounds.

Dr Kathleen Wermke's lab has traced the very first cry 'arcs' into later babbling stages – babies are finding their own voice right from the start!

Could this research even give us a clue to how early language evolved perhaps? Maybe Neanderthals made melodic sound patterns and then early humans developed the physical and cognitive capacity to develop those sounds into gradually more complex patterns and, eventually, articulated speech sounds.

It would be so amazing to go back in time with recording equipment to trace speech patterns in early humans. In the absence of time travel, however, paying closer attention to babies' first sounds could be a very important and often overlooked piece of the jigsaw!