Clues to How Humans Learn Speech

Researchers at University of Chicago are attempting to better understand how humans learn speech through studying communication in animals.

An opinion piece in the journal, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, titled “Language: The Perspective from Organismal Biology” a biologist and a psychologist wrote “We find compelling evidence that language is a phenomenon of evolutionary biology and within the reach of biological investigation.”

Biologist, Daniel Margoliash, and psychologist, Howard Nusbaum, have been able to show that previously held theories on how humans learn speech could be incorrect. It was once thought that the way humans learn speech was unique to humans and not related to the communication processes in other animals.

However, as Margoliash points out “Animals have more intelligence than most people give them credit for…[the problem is that we haven’t had a way to measure that intelligence.” Author T.O. Daria /has said similar things in her book “Dasha’s Journal: A cat’s reflections on Life, Catness and Autism.”

Now there appears to be science behind that claim and makes a strong argument for including evolutionary biology as a means of learning more about how language develops in humans.
Studies previously conducted have not been able to explain how the communication process went through evolution on the way to humans. This is why science has always said that the process is uniquely human.

However, Margoliash was able to use his study results showing that starlings (a type of bird) have a large forebrain substantially devoted to vocal learning whereas monkeys (animals previously studied and thought to be closest to humans) do not.

These studies are helpful because as more children are being diagnosed with autism, some of whom are non-verbal, understanding how humans learn to speak could lead to treatment for non-verbal autistics (as well as other non-verbal humans) and improve quality of life for those individuals.

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Heather Johnson
I'm an autistic adult mom to two autistic boys.
Heather Johnson

Heather Johnson

I'm an autistic adult mom to two autistic boys.

0 thoughts on “Clues to How Humans Learn Speech

  • First of all, scientifically speaking, speech is different than language. Speech is the mechanical aspect of communicating – voice, articulation, etc, whereas language is the actual agreed upon system of a community that is used to encode and decode information. 

    Secondly, you make it sound as though scientists have only recently started to think that there are common links between animal communication and human language. Last semester, I wrote a thesis paper about the ability of primates to use and comprehend syntax. To support my thesis, I had to look through hundreds of articles – some dating back as far as the 60s and beyond. And, let me tell you, there was no shortage of research about “language” in animals. To say that animals are capable of using/comprehending syntax, morphology, etc.  is an extremely contentious claim, but it is a claim that has been out there for decades and has a lot of research and theoretical work behind it. Also, it is true that thus far we have had a hard time explaining the evolutionary development of language. However, I don’t believe that most scientists take this to mean that language did not “evolve” or that language is absolutely, purely, uniquely human. Such a claim is absurd. We are far from understanding everything about language and its origin, but I think most legitimate scientists believe that language is not completely removed from the rest of the animal kingdom.

  • psych student

    science has not “always said that the process is uniquely human.”
    there’s been much debate about whether or not animals have language over
    the years, and some researchers believe that while others argue
    otherwise. the important distinction is language vs. communication….no
    one is going to say other animals are incapable of communication;
    however, language is a specific form of communication that animals may
    or may not be capable of (there are several criteria which one could
    animals do not meet). however, you must keep in mind that these are
    somewhat arbitrary human definitions and criteria.

     there are also a couple widely-acknowledged theories about language
    acquisition, which can be basically boiled down to “language is innate
    because there is not enough information in the environment for a child
    to learn a language” vs. “there is enough information in the
    environment, and language is not innate but learned.” 


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