Songbirds possess the spontaneous ability to discriminate syntactic rules

Nat Neurosci. 2011 Jun 26;14(8):1067-74. doi: 10.1038/nn.2869.


Whether the computational systems in language perception involve specific abilities in humans is debated. The vocalizations of songbirds share many features with human speech, but whether songbirds possess a similar computational ability to process auditory information as humans is unknown. We analyzed their spontaneous discrimination of auditory stimuli and found that the Bengalese finch (Lonchura striata var. domestica) can use the syntactical information processing of syllables to discriminate songs). These finches were also able to acquire artificial grammatical rules from synthesized syllable strings and to discriminate novel auditory information according to them. We found that a specific brain region was involved in such discrimination and that this ability was acquired postnatally through the encounter with various conspecific songs. Our results indicate that passerine songbirds spontaneously acquire the ability to process hierarchical structures, an ability that was previously supposed to be specific to humans.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Acoustic Stimulation / methods
  • Animals
  • Auditory Perception / physiology*
  • Discrimination Learning / physiology*
  • Early Growth Response Protein 1 / metabolism
  • Excitatory Amino Acid Agonists / toxicity
  • Finches / physiology*
  • Ibotenic Acid / toxicity
  • Male
  • Neostriatum / injuries
  • Neostriatum / metabolism
  • Neostriatum / physiology
  • Phonetics*
  • Phosphopyruvate Hydratase / metabolism
  • Statistics, Nonparametric
  • Vocalization, Animal / physiology*


  • Early Growth Response Protein 1
  • Excitatory Amino Acid Agonists
  • Ibotenic Acid
  • Phosphopyruvate Hydratase