Birds Babes and Babbling

Why do babies babble?  Most would say that they babble to learn how to form the sounds that make words.  But, a team composed of researchers who study birdsong and infant language think they have found another reason.  Dina Lipkind, a psychology researcher at Hunter College, was lead author of the study published in the journal Nature.  They found that “learning the transitions between syllables…is the crucial bottleneck between babbling and speaking”. But what does this have to do with birds?  The researchers used zebra finches to test how birds learn to transition between syllables.  Young zebra finches were put in soundproof boxes and taught a song, consisting of three syllables.  Then the birds were taught a new song.  It had the same three syllables as the first song, but the first two changed position.  It took the finches an enormous effort to learn the new song: they listened to thousands of repetitions each day for weeks, and they began to babble.

They began to babble just like babies who had learned a new syllable, “they first tend to repeat it…  Then they begin appending it to the beginning or end of syllable strings…, eventually inserting it between other syllables…”

The study has implications for human speech research.  Language acquisition researchers are hoping that these findings will help to understand speech development and disorders better.

Read the original story on the NY Times website: