Bilingual Babies’ Brains Adapt Early

Summary: Newborns exposed to multiple languages before birth show distinct brain responses to speech sounds. Unlike monolingual babies who are more attuned to a specific language’s pitch, bilingual babies show greater sensitivity to a wider range of sounds. This study highlights the impact of prenatal linguistic environments on early brain development and sound processing.

Key Facts:

  • Babies exposed to two languages in the womb develop differently than those exposed to one.
  • This difference is observable in brain responses to vowel sounds and changes in pitch.
  • Bilingual babies have broader sensitivity to sound variations compared to monolingual babies.

Source: Frontiers

It’s well established that babies in the womb hear and learn about speech, at least in the third trimester. For example, newborns have been shown to already prefer the voice of their mother, recognize a story that had been repeatedly told to them while in the womb, and tell apart their mother’s native language.

What wasn’t known until now was how developing fetuses learn about speech when their mother speaks to them in a mix of languages. Yet this is common: there are 3.3 billion bilingual people (43% of the population) worldwide, and in many countries, bilingualism or multilingualism is the norm.  

This shows a baby.
The authors showed that the FFR to playback of the /o a/ sound was more distinctive, that is, better defined and with a higher signal-to-noise ratio, in newborns from monolingual mothers than in newborns from bilingual mothers. Credit: Neuroscience News

“Here we show that exposure to monolingual or a bilingual speech has different effects at birth on ‘neural encoding’ of voice pitch and vowel sounds: that is, how information about these aspects of speech has been initially learned by the fetus,” said Dr Natàlia Gorina-Careta, a researcher at the Institute of Neurosciences of the University of Barcelona, and the joint first author of a new study in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

“At birth, newborns from bilingual mothers appear more sensitive to a wider range of acoustic variation of speech, whereas newborns from monolingual mothers seem to be more selectively tuned to the single language they have been immersed in.”

Study done in polyglot Catalonia

Gorina-Careta and colleagues did their study in Catalonia, where 12% of the population habitually use both Catalan and Spanish. They recruited the mothers of 131 one- to three-day old newborns (including two pairs of twins) in Sant Joan de Déu Barcelona Children’s Hospital as volunteers.

Of these mothers, 41% replied in a questionnaire that they spoke exclusively Catalan (9%) or Spanish (91%) during their pregnancy, including when talking to their growing bump.

The other 59% had spoken in two languages (at least 20% of the time for the second language): either Spanish and Catalan or a combination of one of these with languages such as Arabic, English, Romanian, or Portuguese.

“Languages vary in the timing aspects of speech, such as rhythm and accentuation, but also pitch and phonetic information. This means that fetuses from bilingual mothers are expected to be immersed in a more complex acoustic environment that those from monolingual mothers,” said Dr Carles Escera, a professor at the same institute and one of the two corresponding authors.

The researchers placed electrodes on the babies’ foreheads to measure a particular type of electrophysiological brain response – the ‘frequency-following response’ (FFR) – to repeated playback of a carefully selected sound stimulus, 250 milliseconds long and composed of four stages: the vowel /o/, a transition, the vowel /a/ at a steady pitch, and /a/ rising in pitch.

/o a/ sound

“The contrasting vowels /o/ and /a/ belong to the phonetic repertoire of both Spanish and Catalan, which is partly why we chose them,” explained joint first author Dr Sonia Arenillas-Alcón from the same institute.

“Low frequency sounds like these vowels are also transmitted through the womb reasonably well, unlike mid- and high- frequency sounds that reach the fetus in a degraded and attenuated manner.”

The FFR measures how precisely the action spikes produced by neurons in the auditory cortex and the brainstem mimic the sound wave features of the stimulus. A more distinctive FFR is evidence that the brain has been more effectively trained to pick up precisely that sound. For example, the FFR can be used as a measure of the degree of auditory learning, language experience, and musical training.

The authors showed that the FFR to playback of the /o a/ sound was more distinctive, that is, better defined and with a higher signal-to-noise ratio, in newborns from monolingual mothers than in newborns from bilingual mothers.

Possible trade-off

These results suggest that the brain of fetuses of monolingual mothers had learned to become maximally sensitive to the pitch of just language. In contrast, the brain of fetuses of bilingual mothers seem to have become sensitive to a wider range of pitch frequencies, but without generating the maximal response to any of them. A trade-off may thus exist between efficiency versus selectivity in learning about pitch.

“Our data show that prenatal language exposure modulates the neural encoding of speech sounds as measured at birth. These results emphasize the importance of prenatal language exposure for the encoding of speech sounds at birth, and provide novel insights into its effects,” said Escera.

Joint corresponding author Dr Jordi Costa Faidella, an associate professor at the same institute, cautioned: “Based on our results, we cannot make any recommendation to multilingual parents. The sensitive period for language acquisition lasts long after birth, and thus postnatal experience may well overshadow the initial changes undertaken in the womb.

” Future investigation into how a bilingual language environment modulates sound encoding during the first years of life will shed more light into this issue.”

About this bilingualism and neurodevelopment research news

Author: Mischa Dijkstra
Source: Frontiers
Contact: Mischa Dijkstra – Frontiers
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: Open access.
Exposure to bilingual or monolingual maternal speech during pregnancy affects the neurophysiological encoding of speech sounds in neonates differently” by Carles Escera et al. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience


Exposure to bilingual or monolingual maternal speech during pregnancy affects the neurophysiological encoding of speech sounds in neonates differently

Introduction: Exposure to maternal speech during the prenatal period shapes speech perception and linguistic preferences, allowing neonates to recognize stories heard frequently in utero and demonstrating an enhanced preference for their mother’s voice and native language.

Yet, with a high prevalence of bilingualism worldwide, it remains an open question whether monolingual or bilingual maternal speech during pregnancy influence differently the fetus’ neural mechanisms underlying speech sound encoding.

Methods: In the present study, the frequency-following response (FFR), an auditory evoked potential that reflects the complex spectrotemporal dynamics of speech sounds, was recorded to a two-vowel /oa/ stimulus in a sample of 129 healthy term neonates within 1 to 3 days after birth.

Newborns were divided into two groups according to maternal language usage during the last trimester of gestation (monolingual; bilingual). Spectral amplitudes and spectral signal-to-noise ratios (SNR) at the stimulus fundamental (F0) and first formant (F1) frequencies of each vowel were, respectively, taken as measures of pitch and formant structure neural encoding.

Results: Our results reveal that while spectral amplitudes at F0 did not differ between groups, neonates from bilingual mothers exhibited a lower spectral SNR. Additionally, monolingually exposed neonates exhibited a higher spectral amplitude and SNR at F1 frequencies.

Discussion: We interpret our results under the consideration that bilingual maternal speech, as compared to monolingual, is characterized by a greater complexity in the speech sound signal, rendering newborns from bilingual mothers more sensitive to a wider range of speech frequencies without generating a particularly strong response at any of them.

Our results contribute to an expanding body of research indicating the influence of prenatal experiences on language acquisition and underscore the necessity of including prenatal language exposure in developmental studies on language acquisition, a variable often overlooked yet capable of influencing research outcomes.

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