New Study: Babies Learn to Talk Like Birds Learn to SingRebekah Kuschmider
My baby is 11 months old and she is a non-stop chatterbox. She babbles incessantly, long strings of syllables, punctuated by finger pointing and squealing. Something about a photograph of rubber ducks in one of her books brings on a long diatribe. The sight of her brother or even a photograph of him elicits a two syllable vowel combo that, with enough imagination, sounds a little like his name. Then there was one the one time I tried to eat a banana and she stood in front of me saying what I can only assume was “Give me a bite of that banana right now, you selfish, banana hoarding person, you!”. Needless to say, I shared the banana.
I joke that all the chatter and grumbling sounds a little like the sound effects in the game Angry Birds. Turns out, I’m not too far off. New research shows that human babies learn to put sounds together in a way similar to baby finches! According to the Huffington Post:
Babies learn to babble before they learn to talk, at first simply repeating individual syllables (as in ba-ba-ba), and later stringing various syllables together (as in ba-da-goo). Songbirds exhibit similar patterns during song-learning, and the capacity for this sort of syllable sequencing is widely believed to be innate and to emerge full-blown — a theory that is challenged by a paper published on Nature‘s website today1. A study of three species — zebra finches, Bengalese finches and humans — reports that none of the trio has it that easy. Their young all have to learn how to string syllables together slowly, pair by pair.
The article goes on to detail how researchers taught baby birds new songs, syllable pair by syllable pair, with each pair taking birds several days to master. This is new information, because it was previously thought that birds and babies master sound combination innately:
Perhaps most surprisingly, the study found evidence that human babies follow a similar learning pattern. When the researchers analysed databases of vocal recordings from nine infants, they found that their well-known babbling progression — from repeating the same syllable to stringing different syllables together — did not happen quickly, but occurred gradually, over a period of 20—30 weeks.
So all those “Ah-ba-ba” and “Ba-boo” combos that babies babble are actually hard-won accomplishments rather than random progressions of sound. It makes me want to give my little Angry Bird a round of applause for her efforts – and more banana of course.
Photo credit: wikipedia commons