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Scientists discover similarities between human speech and birdsong

Thursday 7th December 2017
Human speech and birdsong share many characteristics, new research has revealed.
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The biological processes that support human speech and birdsong are largely similar, sharing several patterns and structures, according to a new study.

This is the finding of research carried out by scientists at McGill University in Canada, who set out to explore the links between the two processes. They believe that the results of their investigation could help speech and language therapists to gain an improved understanding of these processes in the future, through the study of birds.

Logan James, co-author of the study, explained: "Because the nature of these universals bears similarity to those in humans and because songbirds learn their vocalisations much in the same way that humans acquire speech and language, we were motivated to test biological predisposition in vocal learning in songbirds."

The research team conducted a series of experiments on young zebra finches and found that each bird typically had a tendency to produce sound patterns of a particular kind, with other zebra finches having their own sound pattern preferences.

Similarly, humans from particular backgrounds or locations tend to produce the same sound patterns when they speak. This therefore indicates that birdsong is a language similar in structure to human speech, as the two forms of communication also feature set elements of timing, pitch, stress and word - or sound - order.

The researchers also exposed the zebra finches to various acoustic elements that could make up a song if paired together. Different birds were made to listen to them in different sequences, before emulating them in whichever order they chose for themselves.

The birds tended to create similar patterns from the acoustic elements, with a long low-pitched sound generally ending each song. Songs created by humans tend to follow similar patterns too, making this an insightful discovery.

Commenting on the research findings, Caroline Palmer, a psychology professor at McGill University who did not work directly on the study herself, concluded: "These findings have important contributions for our understanding of human speech and music."

Written by Martin Lambert

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