The Language of Songbirds and Us

Remember the song “Let’s All Sing Like the Birdies Sing”?  There may be some truth to it.

Could there be a link between human speech and music, and birdsongs?  Is there a connecting biological process?  Recently published research provides evidence that there is a common hardwiring in how songbirds and humans produce and understand sounds.  Jon Sakata, Associate Professor of Biology at McGill University and the paper’s senior author, said “… these sound patterns resembled patterns that are frequently observed across human languages and in music.”

Linguists have know that human languages share common features called “universals.”  These include word order and acoustic speech patterns like timing and pitch.  Scientists studying zebra finches (as pictured on the website linked below) have noticed acoustic patterns that are the same across populations, just like humans.  Further, songbirds learn to vocalize in much the same way we learn speech and language.  Could these similar features be a sign of a “universal grammar” in all our brains, or are they simply cultural?

This new research suggests the existence of such a common biological hardwiring for how sounds are produced and understood.  Or, to explain it in more scientific language, Caroline Palmer, a Professor of Psychology at McGill (and who was not involved in the study), said:

These findings have important contributions for our understanding of human speech and music. The research, which controls the birds’ learning environment in ways that are not possible with young children, suggests that statistical learning alone – the degree to which one is exposed to specific acoustic patterns – cannot account for song (or speech) preferences. Other principles, such as universal grammars and perceptual organization, are more likely to account for why human infants as well as juvenile birds are predisposed to prefer some auditory patterns.

If you really want to get into the science, read “Do Songbirds Share Universal Grammar?” by Eleanor Imster  ( ).

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