Fetal sensitivity to properties of maternal speech and language

Infant Behav Dev. 2009 Jan;32(1):59-71. doi: 10.1016/j.infbeh.2008.10.002. Epub 2008 Dec 5.


Fetal speech and language abilities were examined in 104 low-risk fetuses at 33-41 weeks gestational age using a familiarization/novelty paradigm. Fetuses were familiarized with a tape recording of either their mother or a female stranger reading the same passage and subsequently presented with a novel speaker or language: Studies (1) & (2) the alternate voice, (3) the father's voice, and (4) a female stranger speaking in native English or a foreign language (Mandarin); heart rate was recorded continuously. Data analyses revealed a novelty response to the mother's voice and a novel foreign language. An offset response was observed following termination of the father's and a female stranger's voice. These findings provide evidence of fetal attention, memory, and learning of voices and language, indicating that newborn speech/language abilities have their origins before birth. They suggest that neural networks sensitive to properties of the mother's voice and native-language speech are being formed.

MeSH terms

  • Acoustic Stimulation / methods
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Discrimination, Psychological
  • Female
  • Fetal Development / physiology*
  • Gestational Age
  • Heart Rate / physiology
  • Humans
  • Language*
  • Male
  • Mother-Child Relations*
  • Pregnancy
  • Reaction Time / physiology
  • Recognition, Psychology
  • Speech / physiology*
  • Speech Perception / physiology*
  • Time Factors
  • Voice