Friday, February 25, 2011

The Linguistics of Birdsong - Review in Trends in Cognitive Sciences

In the current issue of Trends in Cognitive Sciences there is an interesting (and free!) review of the linguistics of birdsong and its similarities and differences to human language:

Unlike our primate cousins, many species of bird share with humans a capacity for vocal learning, a crucial factor in speech acquisition. There are striking behavioural, neural and genetic similarities between auditory-vocal learning in birds and human infants. Recently, the linguistic parallels between birdsong and spoken language have begun to be investigated. Although both birdsong and human language are hierarchically organized according to particular syntactic constraints, birdsong structure is best characterized as ‘phonological syntax’, resembling aspects of human sound structure. Crucially, birdsong lacks semantics and words. Formal language and linguistic analysis remains essential for the proper characterization of birdsong as a model system for human speech and language, and for the study of the brain and cognition evolution.

Robert C. Berwick, Kazuo Okanoya, Gabriel J.L. Beckers and Johan J. Bolhuis (2011) "Songs to syntax: the linguistics of birdsong." In: Trends in Cognitive Sciences." Volume 15, Issue 3, March 2011, Pages 113-121

Update: Edmund Blair Bolles of Babel's Dawn has also just published a very short article about human speech, birdsong and convergent evolution in the journal Bioscience (here)

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Four Stone Hearth 112, Chimpanzees, Hosts, and Goats

The latest edition of the Four Stone Hearth #112 is out over at Anthropology in Practice and contains a number of very interesting links.

For example, they link to a very interesting post by Barbara J. King in which she discusses work by David Leavens, Timothy P. Racine, and William D. Hopkins about pointing behaviour in chimpanzees. These authors question claims made by people like Michael Tomasello and others that only humans point declaratively to provide information and share attention (something which I blogged about previously, e.g. here; see also this post and a very interesting post about a new article by Hopkins and colleagues at Babel's Dawn)
Also, Four Stone Hearth is in dire need of hosts so please check out its announcement page if you might be interested in hosting it.

Hat tip: Daniel Lende

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Patricia Kuhl: The linguistic genius of babies | Video on

Patricia Kuhl: The linguistic genius of babies | Video on
"At TEDxRainier, Patricia Kuhl shares astonishing findings about how babies learn one language over another -- by listening to the humans around them and "taking statistics" on the sounds they need to know. Clever lab experiments (and brain scans) show how 6-month-old babies use sophisticated reasoning to understand their world."

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Can children learn abstract syntactic principles by using general cognitive capacities?

One of the most hotly debated issues in the study of language acquisition is whether the abstract syntactic principles of a language can be learned by children

1. by using domain-general capacities (such as pattern finding, analogy, statistical learning, categorization and generalization, etc.)
or whether they need
2. innately specified knowledge of language that enables them to form the right abstract syntactic categories that cannot be infered from the surface level of linguistic utterances (Chomsky's Poverty of Stimulus Argument)
In a new paper in the journal Cognition, Perfors et al. (2011) argue that domain-general capacities are sufficient for children to be able to learn abstract syntactic principles inherent in the linguistic input.

Here's the abstract:

Children acquiring language infer the correct form of syntactic constructions for which they appear to have little or no direct evidence, avoiding simple but incorrect generalizations that would be consistent with the data they receive. These generalizations must be guided by some inductive bias – some abstract knowledge – that leads them to prefer the correct hypotheses even in the absence of directly supporting evidence. What form do these inductive constraints take? It is often argued or assumed that they reflect innately specified knowledge of language. A classic example of such an argument moves from the phenomenon of auxiliary fronting in English interrogatives to the conclusion that children must innately know that syntactic rules are defined over hierarchical phrase structures rather than linear sequences of words (e.g., [Chomsky, 1965], [Chomsky, 1971],[Chomsky, 1980] and [Crain and Nakayama, 1987]). Here we use a Bayesian framework for grammar induction to address a version of this argument and show that, given typical child-directed speech and certain innate domain-general capacities, an ideal learner could recognize the hierarchical phrase structure of language without having this knowledge innately specified as part of the language faculty. We discuss the implications of this analysis for accounts of human language acquisition.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

'Evolution and Human Behavioural Diversity'

The February issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences looks very interesting: It is a theme issue called 'Evolution and human behavioural diversity' and was compiled and edited by Gillian R. Brown, Thomas E. Dickins, Rebecca Sear and Kevin N. Laland. It consists of 13 articles and an introduction, which are all available for free.

Human beings persist in an extraordinary range of ecological settings, in the process exhibiting enormous behavioural diversity, both within and between populations. People vary in their social, mating and parental behaviour and have diverse and elaborate beliefs, traditions, norms and institutions. The aim of this theme issue is to ask whether, and how, evolutionary theory can help us to understand this diversity. In this introductory article, we provide a background to the debate surrounding how best to understand behavioural diversity using evolutionary models of human behaviour. In particular, we examine how diversity has been viewed by the main subdisciplines within the human evolutionary behavioural sciences, focusing in particular on the human behavioural ecology, evolutionary psychology and cultural evolution approaches. In addition to differences in focus and methodology, these subdisciplines have traditionally varied in the emphasis placed on human universals, ecological factors and socially learned behaviour, and on how they have addressed the issue of genetic variation. We reaffirm that evolutionary theory provides an essential framework for understanding behavioural diversity within and between human populations, but argue that greater integration between the subfields is critical to developing a satisfactory understanding of diversity.
The article that looks most interesting to me is a paper by W. Tecmuseh Fitch called "Unity and diversity in human language":
Human language is both highly diverse—different languages have different ways of achieving the same functional goals—and easily learnable. Any language allows its users to express virtually any thought they can conceptualize. These traits render human language unique in the biological world. Understanding the biological basis of language is thus both extremely challenging and fundamentally interesting. I review the literature on linguistic diversity and language universals, suggesting that an adequate notion of ‘formal universals’ provides a promising way to understand the facts of language acquisition, offering order in the face of the diversity of human languages. Formal universals are cross-linguistic generalizations, often of an abstract or implicational nature. They derive from cognitive capacities to perceive and process particular types of structures and biological constraints upon integration of the multiple systems involved in language. Such formal universals can be understood on the model of a general solution to a set of differential equations; each language is one particular solution. An explicit formal conception of human language that embraces both considerable diversity and underlying biological unity is possible, and fully compatible with modern evolutionary theory.