How can speech discrimination happen in the womb?
New parents are always thrilled when their child finally speaks their first words – usually at the age of 12 to 18 months. What parents often don’t know, however, is that the regions of the brain that recognize and process speech sounds start to specialize at a much earlier stage than this. An interdisciplinary working group of the Department of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine of MedUni Vienna/Vienna General Hospital in the Comprehensive Center for Pediatrics (CCP) led by neurolinguistics expert Lisa Bartha-Doering has now found out that full-term newborns are easily capable of discriminating between speech sounds and non-speech sounds the very next day after they are born. They also discovered that the specialization of specific regions of the frontal and temporal lobe of the left hemisphere in the brain of the child plays a major role in the processing of speech, and can be observed even at this early age.
How the baby hears speech in the womb
The hearing apparatus of the fetus is already functional in the last trimester of pregnancy and therefore, the speech-specific regions begin to develop in the brain. Babies can therefore, learn to distinguish the first speech sounds while they are still in the womb. The natural filtering of speech sounds through the amniotic fluid and through the background noise of the mother’s body also has to play a major role in this. The last few weeks before birth are considered to be very important for the first phases of a child’s speech development and it has also been observed to affect the child’s ongoing speech acquisition.
To measure this early brain activity, the researchers of the study mentioned above has used the technique of functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS), which involves measuring the changes in oxygenation in the baby’s cerebral cortex as it recognizes speech. So when you think of whether or not your baby can hear you and recognize your voice before they are born, the answer is YES!!!