Written by Loren Grush
The first few months of a newborn’s life are critical in terms of language acquisition and cognitive development. However, this time period is very sensitive and complex, and various environmental factors can have an impact on a child’s early development.
Now, a new study has revealed that both maternal depression and a common kind of antidepressant are two big environmental issues, which can alter when this learning phase begins in children – ultimately affecting their ability to learn how to speak.
Researcher from the University of British Columbia, Harvard University and the Child & Family Research Institute have revealed that treating maternal depression with a class of antidepressants called serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SRIs) help to speed up the newborn’s ability to grasp and understand the sights and sounds of their native language. Conversely, untreated maternal depression ultimately delayed this period of language acquisition.
According to the scientists, this phase of cognitive development begins before a baby is even born – meaning their prenatal environment is extremely important.
“My work and the work of a lot of other people have shown that we develop in the womb ready to learn any of the world’s languages,” Janet Werker, a professor in the department of psychology at the University of British Columbia and the study’s lead author, told FoxNews.com. “We start out universal listeners, ready to learn what languages we hear and see.”
Werker explained that during this language learning period, newborns are able to differentiate between the characteristics of their native language and the characteristics of languages of foreign speakers. This window of learning eventually closes though, typically around 8 months after birth.
Once the window closes, babies stop paying attention to sounds they do not need and lose the ability to discern between verbal cues that are not utilized in their native language.
“For example, when it comes to the difference between [the words] ‘raw’ and ‘law,’ you as an English speaker can hear that distinction,” Werker said, “but a Japanese adult cannot.