SoundStart: Prosodic development before birth and in the first three years of life


A Sound Start

Does it make sense to talk to your unborn child? Pregnant women frequently report that their babies are able to respond to their voice or their partner’s voice by moving around.

In the 1990’s, evidence began to emerge in medical science that a fetus begins to hear and process sounds already at 27 weeks of pregnancy. Although the speech heard in the womb is muffled, its prosodic properties, that is, the melody and rhythm, come through the womb intact.

So prosody is the first contact that an unborn child has with language, the mother, and the outside world. It is at the basis of language development and the development of mother-child attachment. Early prosodic ability has already been shown to be critical to development in other aspects of language (e.g., words,  grammar), like the foundation of a house. It is thus very important to study the development of prosody.

Past research in this field has been exclusively concerned with the questions of what children can do at which age. In Sound Start, we have initiated a new line of research, redirecting the focus of the field for the first time from the what and when questions to the HOW question:

  • How does it all start?
  • How do children discover prosodic properties specific to their native language?

It is very urgent to answer the HOW question. Because knowledge of the how-question can lead us to the mechanisms at the very heart of language development. This knowledge is also urgently needed to provide preterm newborns with care that facilitates language development, and to improve language and social ability of children with autism or at risk of autism.

In this project, we will look into biologically-motivated mechanisms that guide children in processing prosody before birth. Furthermore, we will probe into prosodic learning in the prenatal stage, finding out (whether and) how fetuses learn prosody from prenatal exposure to speech. Finally,  we will establish the role of visual cues to prosody and visual attention to these cues in prosodic development.

The SoundStart project is funded by the Dutch Research Council’s Talent Programme VICI grant awarded to Prof. dr. Aoju Chen (VI.C.201.109).