Sunday, June 30, 2013

Do da, do da day

Writing in today's NYT, Tim Requarth and Megan Meehan report on an intriguing finding about the development of speech in human babies - and clues that were found from the study of birdsong.

Babies learn to speak months after they begin to understand language. As they are learning to talk, they babble, repeating the same syllable (“da-da-da”) or combining syllables into a string (“da-do-da-do”).

But when babies babble, what are they actually doing? And why does it take them so long to begin speaking?

Insights into these mysteries of human language acquisition are now coming from a surprising source: songbirds.

It seems that sound transitions are hard, and learning them takes a lot of practice.

The study also reveals a lot about the intricate genetic program that orchestrates the development of speech and language, and it's deep evolutionary roots. The evolution of birds and people separated 200 million years or so ago, but we still share some vocalization genes.