Vocal imitation in human infants and in some orders of birds relies on auditory-guided motor learning during a sensitive period of development. It proceeds from 'babbling' (in humans) and 'subsong' (in birds) through distinct phases towards the full-fledged communication system. Language development and birdsong learning have parallels at the behavioural, neural and genetic levels. Different orders of birds have evolved networks of brain regions for song learning and production that have a surprisingly similar gross anatomy, with analogies to human cortical regions and basal ganglia. Comparisons between different songbird species and humans point towards both general and species-specific principles of vocal learning and have identified common neural and molecular substrates, including the forkhead box P2 (FOXP2) gene.