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Bird Song Explains Why Babies Babble

Both birds and children struggle to learn transitions between syllables, practicing them extensively as they learn to speak or sing.

By | July 2, 2013

WIKIMEDIA, DANIEL SCHWENResearchers have identified transitions between syllables as a sticking point for both babies and birds as they learn to talk or sing, The New York Times reported earlier this week (June 30). In a paper published earlier this year (May 29) in Nature, researchers describe the vocal learning processes in zebra finches, Bengalese finches, and human babies, finding remarkable similarities between the species.

“We’ve discovered a previously unidentified component of vocal development,” Dina Lipkind, a psychologist at Hunter College in New York City, told the NYT. “What we’re showing is that babbling is not only to learn sounds, but also to learn transitions between sounds.”

The researchers enclosed the birds in soundproof boxes and attempted to teach them new songs. The birds learned the songs in a stepwise manner and practiced transitions extensively, even if they had already sung all the notes in a different order in a previous song.

The researchers also studied databases of transcribed infant babbling sessions and found that the infants too were working hard to learn new transitions. The babies were most likely to put a new transition at the end or beginning of a babbling sequence. For instance, a baby learning the transition between “da” and “do” might start out saying “do-da-da” or “da-da-do” before moving on to the more difficult “do-da-do.”

“This result changes what we think kids are doing while babbling,” New York University’s Gary Marcus, another author of the paper, told the NYT.

“They aren’t even babbling researchers, and they came up with a procedure that eluded all of us,” D. Kimbrough Oller, a University of Memphis language researcher, said to the NYT. “Assuming they are correct, they’ve made a serious contribution to the babbling literature.”

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