Mini workshop follow up to the BBI conference "New Perspectives on Animal Models of Language and Cognition"

Noon: Carel ten Cate

Response: Tecumseh Fitch

Commentary and discussion: Xiaoqin Wang, Josef Rauschecker, Yale Cohen, Lori Holt


The linguistic abilities of birds – on speech perception and grammar rule learning

Language is a unique feature of modern humans. One window to address its evolutionary origin is by comparative research, examining whether certain features that make up the language faculty are present in other animal species. Several bird species have relatively complex, well structured, learned vocalizations and for that reason birdsong is seen as one of the closest animal analogues for language. I am interested in whether this superficial similarity extends to a similarity in cognitive skills of birds, in particular with respect to the processing of phonetic or syntactic features. In both areas there is debate on whether specific abilities are uniquely human, and evolved in consort with language, or whether they originate from more general cognitive abilities that might also be present in other animal species, either by common descent or by independent evolution. We use zebra finches and budgerigars as model species to examine such questions. I will discuss some of our studies, concentrating on two topics. The first one concerns the human ability to recognize words regardless of individual variation across speakers, while at the same time being able to distinguish among speakers. The second topic is the presence and scope of some ‘grammatical’ rule learning abilities in birds.