What’s the News: The more we study other species, the more we learn just how well we fit into the animal kingdom. Recently, scientists described how some parrots share our ability to use logical reasoning
, and now a new study is showing that our syntactical language may not be all that unique either. The research
, published recently in the journal Nature Neuroscience, explains that the society finches
(Lonchura striata domestica) sing according to an acquired set of grammatical rules. Scientists previously thought that language syntax only existed in humans and some whales. How the Heck:
While in their natural habitat, society finches energetically respond to unfamiliar songs. Biologists Kentaro Abe and Dai Watanabe at Kyoto University in Japan exploited this reaction to investigate whether the birds have grammatical rules to their tweets. The researchers began by playing unfamiliar songs to 34 captive finches until the birds got used to them.
Then, Abe and Watanabe mixed up the syllables in the 4 songs and played them back to the finches. One of the remixed songs, SEQ2, elicited outbursts from 90 percent of the birds. “Obviously with these birds the syllables can't just be put anywhere, and that suggests that humans aren't unique in being able to order sound logically,” Professor Gisela Kaplan, a birdsong expert at the University of New England, told ABC.
Next, the Kyoto team wanted to see if the birds’ understanding of grammar was inborn, so they played SEQ2 to finches raised in isolation. The birds only reacted to the songs after spending two weeks with other finches, suggesting that syntactical rules are socially learned. To further test this idea, the researchers taught the birds new grammatical rules by habituating them to one of the team’s remixed songs.
As a final part of their experiment, the researchers pinpointed the brain region─ the anterior nidopallium─responsible for recognizing faulty grammar (Broca’s area in humans plays a similar role in language). Abe says that studying the anterior nidopallium could help scientists better understand where human grammar comes from, according to New Scientist.
What’s the Context:
Past studies have shown that some animals, including dogs, parrots, and monkeys, are able to recognize rudimentary grammar in human speech.
In 2006, MIT neuroscientists uncovered a hierarchical structure in humpback whale songs, which also suggested a form of language syntax. The study was very different from Kyoto University’s: researchers used computer algorithms to analyze patterns in the whale songs.
A recent study by Johns Hopkins University shows that humans may be born knowing some syntactical rules that make learning language easier, possibly confirming the hypothesis set forth by the famous linguist Noam Chomsky 50 years ago. Research published in April suggests that some language rules, like word order, are culturally based and must be learned.
(via New Scientist
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Gallo71