Linguists find that songbirds can learn basic grammar concepts
Associated Press
Apr. 27, 2006

Seth Borenstein

WASHINGTON - Grade-school grammar students should put away their excuses.
Scientists say even a bird brain can grasp one of grammar's early concepts.

Researchers trained starlings to differentiate between a regular birdsong "sentence" and one that was embedded with a warbled clause, according to research in today's issue of the journal Nature.

This "recursive grammar" is what linguists believed separated man from beast. It took University of California at San Diego psychology researcher Tim Gentner a month and about 15,000 training attempts, with food as a reward, to get the birds to recognize this grammatical structure in their own bird language. What they learned may shake up the field of linguistics.

While many animals can roar, sing, grunt or otherwise make noise, linguists have said that the key to distinguishing language skills goes back to our teachers and basic grammar. Recursive grammar - inserting an explanatory clause like this one into a sentence - is something that humans can recognize, but not animals, researchers figured.

Two years ago, a top research team tried to get tamarin monkeys to recognize such phrasing, but they failed.

But after training, nine out of 11 songbirds picked the birdsong with inserted warbling or rattling bird phrases about 90 percent of the time. Two continued to flunk grammar.

Gentner trained the birds using three buttons hanging from the wall. When the bird pecked the button, it would play different versions of birdsongs that Gentner generated, some with inserted clauses and some without. If the song followed a certain pattern, birds were supposed to hit the button again with their beaks; if it followed a different pattern they were supposed to do nothing. If the birds recognized the correct pattern, they were rewarded.