Does language acquisition in newborns begin before birth?

Does language acquisition in newborns begin before birth?

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Would making babies hear different languages ​​during pregnancy promote the acquisition of language skills before birth?

This is what a research team from the LION laboratory led by Professor Anne Gallagher, from the Department of Psychology at the University of Montreal and researcher in neuropsychology at the CHU Sainte-Justine, is trying to determine.

The starting hypothesis is based on the premise that during pregnancy – and more particularly in the last trimester – the language networks of the unborn child are modulated according to the sounds and voices to which it is exposed. This could therefore allow him to process and recognize more easily what is familiar to him, including his mother tongue.

“We believe that, from the first hours of life, the response of the baby’s brain to hearing voices will be influenced by the languages ​​he will have heard during gestation,” says doctoral student in clinical neuropsychology Laura Caron-Desrochers, who set up this ambitious project with the help of other members of Professor Gallagher’s team.

Being told a story in your mother’s womb… in three languages!

Charles Lepage

Credit: Courtesy Photo

To verify this hypothesis, the research team recruited 72 pregnant women followed at CHU Sainte-Justine who were separated into three groups.

In the first two, future mothers had to have the fetuses listen to the same story of the character Martine in two languages ​​– French and German or French and Hebrew – daily, through earphones placed on the abdomen. the 35e week of pregnancy. The women who made up the third group or control group were not subjected to any protocol.

“German and Hebrew were chosen because of their rhythmic properties which are very different from French and these are two languages ​​which also differ significantly from each other on the phonological level, explain the doctoral student in neuropsychology Charles Lepage and the project manager Phetsamone Vannasing. This allows us to assess all aspects of language and measure language response and development in newborns.”

Then, within 48 hours of their birth, the story is repeated, this time in three languages, to infants, who are fitted with a helmet equipped with sensors that measure brain activation using near infrared spectroscopy.

These recordings of brain activity will be made at different stages of children’s growth up to the age of three so that the trajectory of brain, language and cognitive development can be observed.

Assessing language development in children

Anne Gallagher

Anne Gallagher

Credit: Jimmy Hamelin

Entitled Infant Language Study or ÉLAN, this project, which began this summer and will continue in the fall, was launched four years ago. Funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, it is part of a neuroimaging research program to assess the development of language neural networks and the effects of brain plasticity in toddlers. old and healthy.

The ÉLAN project aims more specifically to measure this development from birth to the age of three, in relation to prenatal exposure to language.

“ÉLAN aims to better understand the developmental trajectories of brain networks and how they are associated with the development of cognitive, language and motor skills in young children, concludes Anne Gallagher. There are several studies on this subject, but their methodologies do not make it possible to identify precise developmental trajectories and our project should fill this gap by following a cohort through time from birth.”

It should be noted that the ÉLAN project is led by Natacha Paquette, neuropsychologist and coordinator of the LION laboratory, and is part of a vast initiative aimed at setting up a normative database in near infrared spectroscopy (Near Infrared Spectroscopy or NIRS ) to which Laura Caron-Desrochers, Sarah Provost, Laurence Petitpas and Charles Lepage contribute. Also participating are Phetsamone Vannasing and engineer Julie Tremblay, who provides data analysis for all LION laboratory projects.


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