Birdsong and human speech: common themes and mechanisms

Annu Rev Neurosci. 1999:22:567-631. doi: 10.1146/annurev.neuro.22.1.567.


Human speech and birdsong have numerous parallels. Both humans and songbirds learn their complex vocalizations early in life, exhibiting a strong dependence on hearing the adults they will imitate, as well as themselves as they practice, and a waning of this dependence as they mature. Innate predispositions for perceiving and learning the correct sounds exist in both groups, although more evidence of innate descriptions of species-specific signals exists in songbirds, where numerous species of vocal learners have been compared. Humans also share with songbirds an early phase of learning that is primarily perceptual, which then serves to guide later vocal production. Both humans and songbirds have evolved a complex hierarchy of specialized forebrain areas in which motor and auditory centers interact closely, and which control the lower vocal motor areas also found in nonlearners. In both these vocal learners, however, how auditory feedback of self is processed in these brain areas is surprisingly unclear. Finally, humans and songbirds have similar critical periods for vocal learning, with a much greater ability to learn early in life. In both groups, the capacity for late vocal learning may be decreased by the act of learning itself, as well as by biological factors such as the hormones of puberty. Although some features of birdsong and speech are clearly not analogous, such as the capacity of language for meaning, abstraction, and flexible associations, there are striking similarities in how sensory experience is internalized and used to shape vocal outputs, and how learning is enhanced during a critical period of development. Similar neural mechanisms may therefore be involved.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain / physiology
  • Humans
  • Learning / physiology
  • Perception / physiology
  • Speech / physiology*
  • Vocalization, Animal / physiology*