Studying the linguistic abilities of birds

as a window on the evolution of speech and language

Science in Archaeology Lunch Talks (SALT)
7 April 2016

Speaker: Prof. dr. Carel ten Cate (Leiden University)

Abstract: Language is a unique feature of modern humans. One window to address its evolutionary origin is by comparative research, examing whether certain features that make up the language faculty are present in other animal species. Songbirds 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 finch and also budgerigars (a small parrot species) as a 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. The second topic is the presence and scope of ‘grammatical’ rule learning abilities in birds.

About the speaker: Carel ten Cate is a professor of Animal Behaviour (Ethology) at the Institute of Biology Leiden (IBL). His core research is on animal communication and cognition. He is particularly interested in the cognitive mechanisms involved in the learning and processing of vocal and visual signals in species ranging from birds and fish to humans. This includes comparative research on auditory perception and auditory pattern learning in animals (in particular birds) and humans.