Birds, humans share communication link: Study
Published Saturday, December 2, 2017 8:01PM EST
New research out of McGill University suggests birds and humans may have more in common than we think.
Whether the first sounds are “goo goo” or “tweet tweet,” the study found the way both species learn language is rooted in the same biological hardwiring – despite the fact that the two don’t seem to have much else in common.
When it comes to learning to communicate, research suggests the two are similar.
“Songbirds, just like humans, have to learn their vocalizations and, actually, the process of song learning in the songbirds that we study is really similar to the process of learning speech in humans,” explained Jon Sakata, an associate professor of biology at McGill.
Over a number of years, researchers played a variety of sounds for young zebra finches, and found the birds innately produce certain sound patterns over others.
“We found, in fact, there were these common patterns produced by these birds which suggests that these biological predispositions can actually influence the way you use your communication signals in adulthood,” said Logan James, a PhD student at McGill.
These patterns match what’s seen in many human languages.
For example, Sakata explains, in a lot of languages, the final utterance of a phrase tends to be longer than the utterances in the middle – a trait fairly common across languages, and similar to the way young babies learn to speak.
“Despite the fact that they’re very young, they’re able to do this amazing task of figuring out what adults around them are doing all the time,” James said.
Researchers say the findings open the door to discovering even more about how humans learn to communicate, and if other animals learn the same way.