Humans are not the only animals that can learn vocal communication from others, but it’s a pretty exclusive club—the only other members are songbirds, bats, whales, dolphins and elephants. At Vanderbilt University, biologists Nicole Creanza and Kate Snyder are studying vocal learning in zebra finches by building the tiniest recording studios in Music City.
“No one has to teach us how to cry, but things like speaking in human language have to be learned,” said Creanza, an assistant professor of biological sciences. “If you don’t have any exposure to language, you can’t produce it.”
Like human babies, zebra finches hatch knowing how to make some instinctual cries, or “calls.” But juvenile male finches also learn songs from the adult males around them, much the same way human babies learn language. Like human babies, they babble at first—in the finches, babbling is called “subsong”—as they experiment to discover the vocal mechanics required to create the sounds they want to make. And they learn the same way babies do: by listening to themselves and editing their vocalizations so they more closely match what the adults are doing.
To study the birds’ learning process, Snyder built two dozen individual recording studios out of picnic coolers and sound foam and furnished them with everything a young bird fresh out of the nest needs, including swings, their favorite toys. The young birds bunk down with an adult male while the researchers collect every sound they make. “We can use a computational analysis to compare how well they learned and how quickly they learned over time through their entire development,” said Snyder, a Ph.D. candidate in biological sciences. “We can compare the similarity of their song to their tutor’s song, and that gives us a quantitative way of measuring learning.”
The research will continue throughout the year. Creanza and Snyder said this work can help us better understand how humans learn how to speak, too, and may shed light on the mechanisms underlying certain speech and language problems.
Their research is supported by Vanderbilt’s Music, Mind and Society TIPs program.