Sounds abound in our rich auditory world. As humans we take them in, wrap them in culture, create language. Neuroscientists have long been interested in understanding this uniquely human process of language acquisition. When does language learning begin and when does a person become bound to their unique language? Researchers have discovered that this highly complex process begins far earlier than anyone imagined.
A fetus can hear by month 5 of pregnancy and by birth is hardwired to discern all possible phonemes (units of sound) of any language. But, in a short period of time, babies will lose this ability and become culture-bound to the sounds of their language.
At 10 months, before their first birthday, long before learning to talk, babies have already evaluated and dedicated themselves to their native tongue. Dr. Patricia Kuhl, a pioneer in the field of language acquisition, found that babies start this process in utero; newborn babies show a strong preference for the sounds of their mother’s language over foreign languages (Moon, Lagercrantz, & Kuhl, 2013). Even so, babies remain open and will take inventory on any sounds they are exposed to until 6-8 months of age. Around this time babies enter a critical but brief developmental window where they focus on the unique sounds of their language. You may better recognize this as the “babbling” stage. All that babbling is really your baby learning and trying out these sounds. And your baby can learn the sounds of any language during this time provided the presentation is in the context of social interaction (Kuhl, 2010)