STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This next report is about an incredibly compelling sound that you probably would assume is pretty much the same all over the world.

(Soundbite of baby crying)

Turns out the sound of a newborn baby's cry may actually depend on the language spoken by its parents. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: Different languages all have their own particular rhythms and intonations. You can hear this, even if you don't understand what's being said. Let's say you suddenly switch to a French radio station.

Unidentified Woman #1: (French language spoken)

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Or a German one.

Unidentified Woman #2: (German language spoken)

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, newborns can hear this difference, too. And a new study suggests that when they're crying they actually try to imitate the general sound of their parent's language. Kathleen Wermke is a researcher at the University of Wurzburg in Germany. She says a colleague recently went to the maternity ward of a hospital in Paris.

Ms. KATHLEEN WERMKE (Center for Prespeech Development and Developmental Disorders, University of Wurzburg): And she recorded the cries directly after the babies were born during the first days of life.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: She recorded 30 French babies. And these cries were compared to ones previously recorded from 30 German babies. Altogether, the research team analyzed the sounds of over 1,000 cries. Wermke says they discovered something interesting. French babies seem to prefer to cry with a rising melody. Like this.

(Soundbite of baby crying)

Ms. WERMKE: That's a French one.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: But German babies preferred a falling melody.

(Soundbite of baby crying)

Wermke says this makes sense because the intonation of the German language typically has a falling melody at the end of phrases, while in French, there's a pitched rise.

Ms. WERMKE: In general, it seems that the baby recognized or perceived those melodic difference in their mother's tongues and are able to reproduce that in their own crying.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: She cautions that both groups of babies could and did produce all kinds of cries.

Ms. WERMKE: So it would be stupid, of course, that we say, ok, they always cry in this typical French pattern. Of course not.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: But the results of this study in the journal, Current Biology, revealed that overall, the French and German infants had patterns of crying that mirrored their parent's language.

Ms. WERMKE: Very often we think, oh, the baby's crying. Oh, this is really frustrating and I don't want him to cry. And I think we should be more aware that crying is a language itself and the baby is really trying to communicate with us.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The study impressed Toben Mintz. He's a researcher at the University of Southern California who studies how kids learn language. He says scientists knew from previous work that newborns do recognize the acoustic patterns of their native language.

Professor TOBEN MINTZ (Psychology and linguistics, University of Southern California): But what is really novel about this study is showing that they can actually produce these patterns in their cries.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Months before they'd be doing anything like babbling, which as been considered to be the first true linguistic utterances. Mintz says he has kids but never searched their early cries for hints of language mimicry.

Professor MINTZ: That's not what I was thinking about when they were crying. Certainly, when they were very young, that never entered my mind that that would be even a possibility.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says newborns must have a surprising degree of vocal control to be able to reproduce sound patterns that they probably first heard in the womb.

Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

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