Finch song learning in the news again

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Tim Requarth and Meehan Crist, "From the mouth of babes and birds", NYT 6/29/2013:

Researchers who focus on infant language and those who specialize in birdsong have teamed up in a new study suggesting that learning the transitions between syllables — from “da” to “do” and “do” to “da” — is the crucial bottleneck between babbling and speaking.

“We’ve discovered a previously unidentified component of vocal development,” said the lead author, Dina Lipkind, a psychology researcher at Hunter College in Manhattan. “What we’re showing is that babbling is not only to learn sounds, but also to learn transitions between sounds.”

The study is Dina Lipkind, Gary F. Marcus, Douglas K. Bemis, Kazutoshi Sasahara, Nori Jacoby, Miki Takahasi, Kenta Suzuki, Olga Feher, Primoz Ravbar, Kazuo Okanoya & Ofer Tchernichovski, "Stepwise acquisition of vocal combinatorial capacity in songbirds and human infants", Nature, Published online 29 May 2013.

I haven't had time to read the paper yet, but the authors come from several excellent groups, including Ofer Tchernichovski's lab at CUNY and Gary Marcus's group at NYU.  Some previous LL commentary on finches, mostly based on what I've learned from Ofer and his students and postdocs:

"Emergence of birdsong phonology", 10/11/2003
"Birdsong and speech: together in the genome?",  4/7/2004
"Watch out for those Wallonian finches", 5/22/2007
"Dialect variation in the terminal flourishes of Flemish chaffinches", 5/27/2007
"Finches again", 6/9/2007
"Finch phrase structure?", 10/1/2007
"Creole birdsong?", 5/9/2008
"A multi-generational bioprogram? Derek Bickerton objects", 5/10/2008
"What's in a generation or two?", 5/12/2008
"Musical protolanguage: Darwin's theory of language evolution revisited", 2/12/2009
"Bickerton on Fitch", 2/15/2009

…and especially on why finch song-grammar is (oddly enough) not finite-state:
"Finch Linguistics", 7/13/2011

More later on the bird/babbling paper…


  1. Martin J Ball said,

    July 1, 2013 @ 8:16 am

    Has anyone tweeted about this yet …?

  2. Bill Benzon said,

    July 2, 2013 @ 9:17 am

    I've just made a post at New Savanna in which I suggest that the transition problem is a general one in motor control, using anecdotal examples from ballet and drumming: Sensorimotor Transition in Three Modes.

  3. Mary Dreyer said,

    July 2, 2013 @ 11:07 am

    Some years ago, a team at I think SFU (lazy me, I don't remember the citation) did some work on transitions in speech and their relationship to difficulty with phonological awareness and learning to read. Their work was then monetized in the form of software called Fast Forword (I think) in which the transitions were initially presented slowed down (to enhance perception) and gradually over the course of a few months, sped up to normal, in a game context. Unfortunately, Fast Forword was expensive and only could be administered by professionals in a difficult schedule for most children, and worse yet, became touted as an intervention for almost anything. Anyway, transitions. I wonder how those students who have phonological perceptual difficulty did at this very early stage of development?

  4. Just a Warbler said,

    July 7, 2013 @ 8:10 am

    Da-do-do-do, duh-da-da-da is all I want to say.

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