Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

The birds and the b’s: Challenging Chomsky, starlings learn ’human-only’ syntax patterns

27.04.2006
The European starling – long known as a virtuoso songbird and as an expert mimic too – may also soon gain a reputation as something of a "grammar-marm." This three-ounce bird, new research shows, can learn syntactic patterns formerly thought to be the exclusive province of humans.

Led by Timothy Q. Gentner, assistant professor of psychology at the University of California, San Diego, a study published in the April 27 issue of Nature demonstrates that starlings have the capacity to classify acoustic sequences defined by recursive, center-embedded grammars.

Recursive center-embedding refers to the common characteristic of human grammars that allows for the creation of new (and grammatically correct) utterances by inserting words and clauses within sentences – theoretically, without limit. So, for example, "Oedipus ruled Thebes" can become "Oedipus, who killed his father, ruled Thebes" or "Oedipus, who killed his father, whom he met on the road from Delphi, ruled Thebes," and so on.

Chomskian linguists have held that this recursive center-embedding is a universal feature of human language and, moreover, that the ability to process it forms the computational core of a uniquely human language facility.

"Our research is a refutation of the canonical position that what makes human language unique is a singular ability to comprehend these kinds of patterns," Gentner said. "If birds can learn these patterning rules, then their use does not explain the uniqueness of human language."

The research also contradicts the 2004 conclusions of W. Tecumseh Fitch and Marc D. Hauser based on the failure of cotton-top tamarin monkeys to learn similar grammar patterns after being exposed to strings of human speech.

"This result reinvigorates the search for the evolutionary substrates for language processing among the primates, and most excitingly gives us an animal model to probe deeper into these aspects of language," said Daniel Margoliash, who is a coauthor along with Kimberly M. Fenn and Howard C. Nusbaum at the University of Chicago.

Gentner and his coauthors created artificial starling songs that followed two different patterning rules: a "context-free" rule, which allows for a sound to be inserted in the middle of an acoustic string and is the simplest form of recursive center-embedding; and a "finite-state" rule, of the sort thought to account for all non-human communication, that allows for sounds to be appended only at the beginning or end of a string.

Capitalizing on the diverse range of sounds in starling songs, the researchers used recordings of eight different "warbles" and eight different "rattles" from a single male starling to construct a total of 16 artificial songs. Eight of these songs followed the context-free sequence AnBn (i.e. AABB or rattle-rattle-warble-warble) and eight followed the finite-state (AB)n (i.e. ABAB or rattle-warble-rattle-warble).

Eleven adult birds were then taught to distinguish these two sets of songs using classic reinforcement techniques. The birds were rewarded with food for pecking at a button when they heard a song from the context-free set and for refraining when they heard one from the finite-state set.

Nine of the starlings – after 10,000 to 50,000 trials over several months – eventually learned to distinguish the patterns.

When tested with different combinations of rattles and warbles that followed the same rules, the starlings performed well above chance, suggesting they had learned the abstract patterns and not just memorized the specific songs.

The researchers also checked to see how the birds responded to "ungrammatical" strings, ones that violated the established rules. The starlings treated these differently, as expected if they had learned the patterns.

The experimenters then asked if the birds were capable of a key feature of human grammars: Could the starlings extrapolate these patterning rules to distinguish among longer strings? Remarkably, Gentner said, after learning the patterns with songs made up of pairs of rattles and warbles, the birds were able to successfully recognize grammatical strings of three rattles-three warbles and four rattles-four warbles.

The finding that starlings can grasp even these simple grammatical rules, Gentner said, suggests that humans and other animals share basic levels of pattern recognition and also hints at the likelihood of other cognitive abilities we have in common.

"There might be no single property or processing capacity," Gentner and coauthors write, "that marks the many ways in which the complexity and detail of human language differs from non-human communication systems."

More generally, Gentner says, "The more closely we understand what nonhuman animals are capable of, the richer our world becomes. Fifty years ago, it was taboo to even talk about animal cognition. Now, there are Nova specials on the subject and no one doubts that animals have complex and vibrant mental lives. This study is a powerful statement about what even birds can do: Look at what they’re learning."

The experiments were performed at the University of Chicago when Gentner was a postdoctoral researcher there. The study is supported in part by a National Institutes of Health grant to Margoliash.

Gentner is now exploring the possibility of working with juvenile starlings, who (like human children) may be more adept than their full-grown counterparts at learning syntactical patterns.

A current study is also underway to see if starlings can apply the rules they’ve learned to novel stimuli – something humans are masters at doing. Early results suggest they don’t, leaving humans the reigning champs of generalizing from patterns.

Inga Kiderra | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.ucsd.edu

More articles from Life Sciences:

nachricht New type of photosynthesis discovered
17.06.2018 | Imperial College London

nachricht New ID pictures of conducting polymers discover a surprise ABBA fan
17.06.2018 | University of Warwick

All articles from Life Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: AchemAsia 2019 will take place in Shanghai

Moving into its fourth decade, AchemAsia is setting out for new horizons: The International Expo and Innovation Forum for Sustainable Chemical Production will take place from 21-23 May 2019 in Shanghai, China. With an updated event profile, the eleventh edition focusses on topics that are especially relevant for the Chinese process industry, putting a strong emphasis on sustainability and innovation.

Founded in 1989 as a spin-off of ACHEMA to cater to the needs of China’s then developing industry, AchemAsia has since grown into a platform where the latest...

Im Focus: First real-time test of Li-Fi utilization for the industrial Internet of Things

The BMBF-funded OWICELLS project was successfully completed with a final presentation at the BMW plant in Munich. The presentation demonstrated a Li-Fi communication with a mobile robot, while the robot carried out usual production processes (welding, moving and testing parts) in a 5x5m² production cell. The robust, optical wireless transmission is based on spatial diversity; in other words, data is sent and received simultaneously by several LEDs and several photodiodes. The system can transmit data at more than 100 Mbit/s and five milliseconds latency.

Modern production technologies in the automobile industry must become more flexible in order to fulfil individual customer requirements.

Im Focus: Sharp images with flexible fibers

An international team of scientists has discovered a new way to transfer image information through multimodal fibers with almost no distortion - even if the fiber is bent. The results of the study, to which scientist from the Leibniz-Institute of Photonic Technology Jena (Leibniz IPHT) contributed, were published on 6thJune in the highly-cited journal Physical Review Letters.

Endoscopes allow doctors to see into a patient’s body like through a keyhole. Typically, the images are transmitted via a bundle of several hundreds of optical...

Im Focus: Photoexcited graphene puzzle solved

A boost for graphene-based light detectors

Light detection and control lies at the heart of many modern device applications, such as smartphone cameras. Using graphene as a light-sensitive material for...

Im Focus: Water is not the same as water

Water molecules exist in two different forms with almost identical physical properties. For the first time, researchers have succeeded in separating the two forms to show that they can exhibit different chemical reactivities. These results were reported by researchers from the University of Basel and their colleagues in Hamburg in the scientific journal Nature Communications.

From a chemical perspective, water is a molecule in which a single oxygen atom is linked to two hydrogen atoms. It is less well known that water exists in two...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

VideoLinks
Industry & Economy
Event News

Munich conference on asteroid detection, tracking and defense

13.06.2018 | Event News

2nd International Baltic Earth Conference in Denmark: “The Baltic Sea region in Transition”

08.06.2018 | Event News

ISEKI_Food 2018: Conference with Holistic View of Food Production

05.06.2018 | Event News

 
Latest News

A sprinkle of platinum nanoparticles onto graphene makes brain probes more sensitive

15.06.2018 | Materials Sciences

100 % Organic Farming in Bhutan – a Realistic Target?

15.06.2018 | Ecology, The Environment and Conservation

Perovskite-silicon solar cell research collaboration hits 25.2% efficiency

15.06.2018 | Power and Electrical Engineering

VideoLinks
Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>