Few things are harder to study than human language. The brains of living humans can only be studied indirectly, and language, unlike vision, has no analogue in the animal world. Vision scientists can study sight in monkeys using techniques like single-neuron recording. But monkeys don’t talk.
However, in an article published in Nature, a group of researchers, including myself, detail a discovery in birdsong that may help lead to a revised understanding of an important aspect of human language development. Almost five years ago, I sent a piece of fan mail to Ofer Tchernichovski, who had just published an article showing that, in just three or four generations, songbirds raised in isolation often developed songs typical of their species. He invited me to visit his lab, a cramped space stuffed with several hundred birds residing in souped-up climate-controlled refrigerators. Dina Lipkind, at the time Tchernichovski’s post-doctoral student, explained a method she had developed for teaching zebra finches two songs. (Ordinarily, a zebra finch learns only one song in its lifetime.) She had discovered that by switching the song of a tutor bird at precisely the right moment, a juvenile bird could learn a second, new song after it had mastered the first one.
Thinking about bilingualism and some puzzles I had encountered in my own lab, I suggested that Lipkind’s method could be useful in casting light on the question of how a creature—any creature—learns to put linguistic elements together. We mapped out an experiment that day: birds would learn one “grammar” in which every phrase followed the form of ABCABC, and then we would switch things up, giving them a new target, ACBACB (the As, Bs, and Cs were certain stereotyped chirps and peeps).
The results were thrilling: most of the birds could accomplish the task. But it was clearly difficult—it took several weeks for them to learn the new grammar—and it was challenging in a particular way. While the birds showed no sign of needing to relearn individual sounds, the connections between individual syllables, known as “transitions,” proved incredibly difficult. The birds proceeded slowly and systematically, incrementally working out each transition (e.g., from C to B, and B to A). They could not freely move syllables around, and did not engage in trial and error, either. Instead, they undertook a systematic struggle to learn particular connections between specific, individual syllables. The moment they mastered the third transition of the sequence, they were able to produce the entire grammar. Never, to my knowledge, had the process of learning any sort of grammar been so precisely articulated.
We wrote up the results, but Nature declined to publish them. Then Dina and Ofer speculated that our findings might be more convincing if they were true for not only zebra finches (hardly the Einsteins of the bird world) but for other species as well. Ofer contacted a Japanese researcher, Kazuo Okanoya, who he thought might be able to gather data for Bengalese finches, which have a more complex grammar than zebra finches. Amazingly, the Bengalese finches followed almost exactly the same learning pattern as the zebra finches.
Then we decided to test our ideas about the incrementality of vocal learning in human infants, enlisting the help of a graduate student I had been working with at N.Y.U., Doug Bemis. Bemis and Lipkind analyzed an old, publicly available set of human-babbling data, drawn from the CHILDES database, in a new way. The literature said that in the later part of the first year of life, babies undergo a change from “reduplicated” babbling—repeating a syllable, like bababa—to “variegated” babbling—often switching between syllables, like babadaga. Our birdsong results led us to wonder whether such a change might be more piecemeal than is commonly presumed, and our examination of the data proved that, in fact, the change did not happen all at once. It was gradual, with new transitions worked out one by one; human babies were stymied in the same ways that the birds were. Nobody had ever really explained why babbling took so many months; our birdsong data has finally yielded a first clue.
Today, almost five years after Lipkind and Tchernichovski began developing the methods that are at the paper’s core, the work is finally being published by Nature.
What we don’t yet know is whether the similarity between birds and babies stems from a fundamental similarity between species at the biological level. When two species do something in similar ways, it can be a matter of “homology,” a genuine lineage at the genetic level, or “analogy,” which is independent reinvention. It will likely be years before we know for sure, but there is reason to believe that our results are not purely an accident of independent invention. Some of the important genes in human vocal learning (including FOXP2, the gene thus far most decisively tied to human language) are also involved in avian vocal learning, as a new book, “Birdsong, Speech, and Language,” discusses at length.
Language will never be as easy to dissect as birdsong, but knowledge about one can inform knowledge about the other. Our brains didn’t evolve to be easily understood, but the fact that humans share so many genes with so many other species gives scientists a fighting chance.
This is the sort of stuff I came across in one of my MSc courses this year. It’s still very difficult for me to understand - truly understand - what’s going on, so I can’t really comment on the article at all. The theory and practice of these studies I just can’t grasp (and that makes me sad…) - but I thought it might be interesting to you all the same. Everyone gets excited about evolution of language stuff, right?