Finches Tweet With Grammar and Scold Those That Don't

By Joseph Castro | June 27, 2011 1:46 pm

spacing is important

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:

(via New Scientist)

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Gallo71

  • Crow

    Yet another piece of the tapestry that shows how very non-unique we humans really are.

  • Michael Berry

    We’re animals, like all the rest. Highly intelligent animals, but animals nonetheless.

  • Dennis Preston

    Yet more misunderstandings of the characteristics of human language syntax; this time by researchers who may know a lot about birds but little about linguistics.

  • Pippa

    Dennis, it is easy to criticize – but more detail is needed for us to sort out if your criticism is valid. This strikes me as a good start to examining the question of whether other animals have a structure, grammar, within their communication. Is your problem maybe that it is easier to feel superior and unique than to accept we are after all, as Michael says, animals? Without a more detailed argument, again, it’s hard to tell and I’d hate to jump to conclusions.

  • Robert E

    @Pippa — Dr. Preston’s criticism’s come from his 30+ years as a linguist.

  • Thurston

    Yet, why would Dr. Preston troll a blog without offering a small nugget of wisdom to elaborate why he believes what he believes?

  • Pippa

    Thank you Thurston.
    I’d still like to know how Dr. Preston, came to his conclusions, Robert. After all most of us wouldn’t know that he is a linguist from his post, and 30+ years of experience still doesn’t preclude the need to support any arguments. On the contrary, it should prepare him to do this well! I would be interested to hear what he has to say.
    My bias is that I am a child psychiatrist who works with autistic children – children who have fundamental problems with communication in all aspects, not only language. I work closely with speech language pathologists and have needed to learn about the way in which language is acquired, so any evolutionary or neurologically based approach to language is interesting to me.

  • LVGreen

    Finches tweet with grammar; yet humans are still trying to accomplish tweeting with grammar.

    I have a difficult time understanding why some people are averse to the whole, “humans are ‘animals'” trope, while others all to gleefully exalt instances where humans are NOT unique.

    Perhaps “organisms” should help alleviate any of the negativeness associated with being an animal. And if we know of three organisms out of tens of millions that can communicate with syntax, that is still doggone UNIQUE in my book.

  • Mab

    @ Robert E: Your incorrect use of apostrophes comes from thirty plus years of… What exactly?

  • julie

    Perhaps it wasn’t the word order the finches were responding to, but the word meaning! Perhaps with the syllables rearranged as they were in SEQ2, the tweet’s over-all meaning was changed to something, whatever it was, that outraged the birds.


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