A recent study conducted by Beijing Normal University and University of Würzburg show how babies born to mothers who speak tonal languages, such as Mandarin Chinese, have more melodic cries than those born to mothers who speak non-tonal languages, such as German.
Other tonal languages include Thai, Vietnamese, and Lamnso (the language spoken by the Nso from northwest Cameroon). Tonal languages require more vocal dexterity to be understood.
The study followed a previous study where researchers examined Nso infants’ cry in comparison to that of German infants. The Nso language, Lamnso, is complex, with eight different tones and even more pitch fluctuations that can change the meanings of words. They had found that babies with mothers who speak a tonal language cry with higher melodic variation, often with more extreme variations from high to low.
The study was repeated in Beijing to control for environment (modernity, specifically for electronics), which mirrored the results, though to a lesser degree. Mandarin also has four tones where pitch and pitch fluctuation affect the meanings of words.
So what do we learn from these studies?
- Babies learn language in the womb.
- Language development problems can be identified already in infancy
- A mother’s most spoken language affects language development
- Babies have a native language even before they “babble”
All this made us wonder one thing…why didn’t researchers test the nine-tone-Cantonese instead of the four-tone-Mandarin?
Photo: Flickr (Mark Doliner)