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thorninmud's avatar

Theoretically, could some language be acquired before birth?

Asked by thorninmud (17714 points ) February 13th, 2012

My daughter read a fantasy book featuring dragons. One premise of the book is that the dragons are hatched with the ability to use language by virtue of having heard lots of conversation through the eggshell during incubation. She was fascinated by this premise.

I countered that I didn’t think this would be possible because, absent a world of stimuli, language lacks the referents that give meaning to the symbols of language.

Her boyfriend (who happens to be a post-grad linguistics student at Oxford), maintains that it would be possible to acquire the mechanics of language this way, and that once exposed to a world of stimuli, all of the blanks could be quite quickly filled in.

I can’t easily dismiss someone with his academic chops, but it’s difficult for me to believe that hearing language divorced from experience would even impart this structural framework.

I’m putting this out there as more of a thought experiment than as a practical question.

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27 Answers

Dutchess_III's avatar

Oh my! Dragon riders of Pern! Love it!

I don’t think language can be acquired before birth. To learn words you have to be able to hear them in a physical context and a cause and effect. Like, “It’s cold.” Well, you learn what that means by the fact that you’re feeling “cold” whenever you hear that word. You can’t do that in the womb.

That’s not to say the baby can’t hear and respond to emotions. But that has nothing to do with a specific language.

LuckyGuy's avatar

If true, infants would blink their eyes or cover their faces every time they heard: “Oh that feels so good!” or “Deeper!”
Mine didn’t.
(Maybe not deep enough?)

john65pennington's avatar

Only through DNA to the unborn child.

JilltheTooth's avatar

Maybe the familiarity of language expedites the learning of same after birth. The ear and language centers of the brain may already have the heads-up so to speak of the appropriate sounds, that then only need context for comprehension. I would wonder if it would take longer for a baby to “get” the basics if, for example, the mother was Russian or Chinese and the baby was adopted by English speakers right after birth.

JLeslie's avatar

I don’t see how. For human babies they are floating in fluid so any sounds they do hear sound under water, not like well enunciated language. It seems young babies are not able to retain memory either, especially about something as specific as language, so I don’t see how it is possible. Every so often something really weird happens, something outside of what we consider to be the laws of nature, or simply something we don’t understand, so maybe 1 in a billion children remember having memory of language when they were one month old, but so unlikely.

I have heard stories of people who remember events as infants and young toddlers, which is still very young, knowing what their parents were saying, but not responding or not having the ability to respond well.

SpatzieLover's avatar

Hmmm…I’m tempted to say yes.

I always question how a toddler that has never been introduced to a piano goes up to it and begins playing actual music.

thorninmud's avatar

Wouldn’t this be kind of analogous to unearthing a horde of ancient tablets with some kind of phonetic script written on it, and expecting that if you look at enough of the tablets, then you’ll start to understand which strings of marks are nouns, which are verbs, which are adjectives…? I’m not sure that could happen even though the reader of the tablets already has a language of his own and therefor already knows about nouns and verbs and adjectives.

I’ll grant that patterns could be perceived. Similar sounds could be repeated and recognized, for example. But can the structure of language be derived from pattern alone?

SpatzieLover's avatar

But can the structure of language be derived from pattern alone?

Interesting question @thorninmud. To this, I say: YES!

We have an Aspie friend. She taught herself to read at age three, based on pattern alone.
At age two, she began opening books and reciting the pattern of how her parents would read to her with. Then she began using the pattern to decipher how to say the words. She was not taught phonetics in a formal way at all.

At age 6, she reads at a 12yr old level. Her reading comprehension matches her reading level.

JilltheTooth's avatar

Maybe there could be other factors at work, here, @thorninmud . Maybe it’s not just pattern recognition, but other chemical cues at play. Cadence and tone can be discerned to a degree through fluid, and maybe certain tones trigger certain chemical cues. The fetus hears angry words exchanged, and although s/he doesn’t have the cognition of “angry”, maybe the environment s/he’s in gets a bit “soured” and/or unpleasant by the chemical reactions of the mother. All this gets stored in memory and after birth context makes sense and reactions are repeated and set.

cazzie's avatar

I think they did a study of baby laughs of different nationalities and determined that there was some correlation between the language of the mothers and the sound of the babies laugh. I’ll see if I can find it…. No.. not exactly.. but I found something interesting….

http://www.ted.com/talks/patricia_kuhl_the_linguistic_genius_of_babies.html

wundayatta's avatar

Do we have an operating definition of language? For me, language is the association of symbols with concepts. So the concept of a leg is associated with the visual cue “leg.” It would also be associated with the sounds we make when we say the word, “leg.”

But there’s more to “language” than that direct association of a clearly delineated concept with a clearly delineated symbol. I think for most of us the sound of running water is associated with the idea of running water. The sound of singing is associated with a person making such sounds. It may also be associated with feelings such as vibrations associated with specific sounds.

Parents are encouraged to speak to their children in utero because it is supposed to help with language development. We know that parents who speak fewer words to their children as they grow up will have children with lower IQs.

This all suggests to me that fetuses are already developing the brain architecture necessary for language in utero. Their ideas, in absence of sights, will purely be based on physical sensations and sounds. No smells or sights or tastes. However they will associated sounds with movements. They may associate sounds with sounds.

All this, however, will be a very very rudimentary level compared to what full grown humans can do. They have not learned to see yet because they haven’t been exposed to the outside world. Similarly, they haven’t learned a language of smell or taste. Just a little bit of sound and touch.

Still, to be able to hear the sound of a mother singing, or a father reading poetry, trains the fetus or alerts the fetus to the existence of these sounds. Once born, the fetus will recognize them and feel more comfortable around them. I would argue that this is a form of language development, since language is the association of specific stimuli with other stimuli.

ragingloli's avatar

Modified Borg Nanites to establish artificial neurons and neuronal connections and subsequent upload of the desired language database.

zensky's avatar

Though I have no knowledge of this, and I haven’t read up on the subject (though I intend to) I am tempted to say, perhaps a little. Helen Keller…

Dutchess_III's avatar

@zensky ? Helen Keller could see and hear until she was about two years old when she contracted scarlett fever.

flutherother's avatar

I don’t think foetuses will ever develop a sizeable vocabulary but the brain must develop the potential for language while in the womb. When a baby is born it is ready to learn the word for mother.

Dutchess_III's avatar

mmm…I’d say it’s ready to learn the word for food, before mother!

JilltheTooth's avatar

KatawaGrey’s first word was “bladder” but I think it had more to do with sound combining rather than a cognitive connection…

zensky's avatar

Perhaps a little.

Cultural studies often showed that the types of gurgles and babble that a newborn used seemed to be unique to specific parental language groups. French babies babble in a certain way that is different from, say, Chinese babies. Scientists wondered why this was happening.

A new study published in Current Biology and summarized in ScenceDaily suggests that infants begin picking up elements of what will be their first language in the womb, and certainly long before their first babble or coo.

From here

Dutchess_III's avatar

My daughter’s first word was “Baggie,” and it referred to Black Jack, our dog. It soon became the word for “Cracker” too. That was her whole vocabulary for about two weeks. She had a blast feeding baggie to Baggie.

ucme's avatar

Oh yes, i’m assured by my mother that I spoke fluent googie-ga-ga right from the get go.

dabbler's avatar

My cousin played language instruction tapes while her two sons were in utero, and they turned out to be very smart fellows, one of them started his opthamology residency this year.
They don’t seem to be any more apt at foreign language than most college grads though and one of them has a stutter.

Dutchess_III's avatar

Well, @dabbler .. Mom’s instruction didn’t end when the boys were born. It went on throughout their lives, which is the reason they did well.

bkcunningham's avatar

Seriously, have you ever seen this? I’ve seen it in real life. Not this baby, but others.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7gSZfW4gVhI

dabbler's avatar

@Dutchess_III “Mom’s instruction didn’t end when the boys were born” Oh of course not ! I was just answering in the scope of the question. She and their father were devoted loving parents for over a couple decades now and they are all smart and kind, love ‘em!

mattbrowne's avatar

Our twins did this. When one started kicking this told the other one to join the bandwagon.

Paradox25's avatar

I always have felt that any type of sentient being or existence would have to have some type of inner language, or it would not be able to apprehend anything regardless. Words are a poor substitute for thoughts, but the ‘language’ of thought has to be mandatory for any type of sentient existence. My own answer to this thread is yes, and the language is called thought.

thorninmud's avatar

Maybe marginally relevant:

Wrens Teach Eggs to Sing

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