The cry of newborn babies may seem like nothing more than inescapable shrills, but they could be infants' first attempts to imitate the language they hear while in the womb.

In a study published today in Current Biology, scientists found differences in the crying patterns of babies as early as two days after birth, depending on whether their mothers spoke French or German. Previous studies have reported that fetuses in their third trimester can learn aspects of their eventual native tongue, such as language rhythm and intonation. But, as of yet, there was only evidence that newborns incorporated these early language lessons into their own sounds starting at 12 weeks of age, when they typically start to babble and produce syllables.

"According to our research, language development starts with melody, and indeed with crying melody, and not with articulation [of vowels or syllables]," says Kathleen Wermke, a medical anthropologist at the University of Wurzburg in Germany, and senior author of the study.

To determine if newborn babies can "speak" their native language, Wermke and a team of other psychologists recorded the cries of newborns born in hospitals in either France to French-speaking parents or in Germany to German-speaking parents. The team compared German's distinct falling melody with French, which has one of the most pronounced rising melodies among the romance languages, Wermke says. Whereas the pitch of a French word or phrase usually turns up at the end, German is high-pitched at the beginning of an expression.

Using computer software, the team analyzed the frequency and pitch of the infants' soundtracks. The psychologists only recorded spontaneous cries, arising from hunger or loneliness, and excluded pain cries, which tend to be erratic in pitch. They found that the pitch and intensity of French babies' cries peaked right before they stopped to take a breath, whereas German babies' cries started with a bang and faded out.

These findings suggest that even in their first days, newborns are imitating the aspect of the language, intonation and rhythm, of which they are capable. Although babies lack the ability to articulate sounds until a few months later, newborns do have the only tool—respiratory activity—they need to replicate these aspects of their native language. Since the babies made these cries at only between two and five days after birth, the authors figure the learning occurred in the womb. In this environment, patterns of intonation and rhythm of the mother and people speaking near the mother are salient.

The idea that babies start to apply what they've learned in the womb so soon after birth makes sense to Wermke: "Why should a baby wait for three, four, five months in order to start this language development if, on the perception side, you already start prenatally?" She adds that, "The behavior we observe is just a reflection of this terrific pre-adaptation for learning language."

In addition to serving as a first step toward language development, the subtle notes of crying patterns could lead to a diagnostic tool for developmental language problems. In related studies, Wermke has found early indications that young children with language disorders had unusual crying patterns as babies.

So the next time a newborn wails out an annoying "Wah! Wah!," just think, it could be working on one day saying "Oui! Oui!"

Image courtesy of Istockphoto/Brosa