Pregnant and you want to raise your child with multiple languages? Then you probably might have wondered, if your baby is already growing bilingual or multilingual in your womb. Is there anything like prenatal language learning?
Research on prenatal bilingual or multilingual language learning is still relatively little and the subject quite recent. What is for sure is that your baby is definitely exposed to languages even it is not yet born!
Earlier research talks about vowel and consonant recognition of newborns
Until now, scientists could already observe that foetuses learn vowels and consonants during pregnancy and are continuously exposed to the sounds of the mother and her environment. In particularly high frequencies can be perceived by the baby (like being under water, the sounds that reach the baby are dulled). This can be observed on any newborn who recognises his or her mother immediately after birth by her sound (and of course her smell).
Recent research adds the interest in languages and the ability to differentiate
But there’s more than that! In addition to this observation, latest research has shown, that the foetus also learns much more than only such small parts of speech like vowels and consonants!
Such shows a study from US and Swedish researchers, that was lead by Christine Moon, professor of psychology at Pacific Lutheran University (Tacoma, Washington), that newborns are already used to their mother’s language to which they were exposed during pregnancy and such show curiosity for other languages.
Another research, run by psychological scientists Krista Byers-Heinlein and Janet F. Werker from the University of British Columbia together with Tracey Burns of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development in France showed even much more interesting results. They observed monolingual infants who only listened to English during their foetal state and bilingual infants who listened to their mothers who spoke English and Tagalog. They found, that newborns who’s mothers spoke different languages during pregnancy showed a much higher interested in such languages and were even able to differentiate between them!
Expose your prenatal baby to different languages!
The prenatal experience with languages affects the newborn brain sensibility regarding languages and their ability to speech processing. So, your baby not only experiences sounds but also individual languages during the prenatal state. So it does make a difference, whether you are speaking in different languages to your belly or not!
This exposure to language is particularly intense during the last 10 weeks of pregnancy, states Patricia Kuhl (Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences at the University of Washington) in “How foetuses learn languages“. “The foetus in the last ten weeks is not only listening, is not only taking note of the sounds, but remembering and learning them”. “They [the babies] are not phonetically naïve at birth”.
After birth: During the first 6 months babies are most susceptive to languages
Research also shows that during the first 6 months a baby’s mind is totally open to all kind of sound combinations, independently, in which cultural context he or she was born. From 6 months up to one year, the language skills then specialise on the language(s) that the baby is surrounded with. So if you plan to familiarise your child to the sounds of Mandarin, you should provide access to this language prior to the first birthday.
Interestingly, it could be also found that in order to learn a language human interaction is the only way. In her great speech at TEDxRainier, Patricia Kuhl speaks about foetuses and newborns who where exposed to foreign languages through radio or television. The result: The baby’s language learning ability is almost only triggered by the social brain area! This means, that the social interaction with another person who speaks the other language is crucial! Only exposing the little ones to multilingual TV-shows or audio tapes won’t help them to learn the language.
So, if you really intend to add another language to the one(s) you and your family are already speaking to your baby, invest in somebody who actually speaks the new language and who will create a social bond between him and your little one. If this is the French au pair or the Chinese nanny is up to you.

If you are interested in what you can during your pregnancy do to help your baby to build a bilingual or multilingual foundation read also: 3 tips for prenatal language learning


May, Lillian et al. “Language and the Newborn Brain: Does Prenatal Language Experience Shape the Neonate Neural Response to Speech?” Frontiers in Psychology 2 (2011): 222. PMC. Web. 16 Dec. 2015.
Newborn memories of the “oohs” and “ahs” heard in the womb by Barbara Clements, Pacific Lutheran University Communications
Association for Psychological Science. “Bilingual babies: The roots of bilingualism in newborns.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 17 February 2010.