Indexed on: 30 Jun '15Published on: 30 Jun '15Published in: Current Biology
Language is uniquely human, but its acquisition may involve cognitive capacities shared with other species. During development, language experience alters speech sound (phoneme) categorization. Newborn infants distinguish the phonemes in all languages but by 10 months show adult-like greater sensitivity to native language phonemic contrasts than non-native contrasts. Distributional theories account for phonetic learning by positing that infants infer category boundaries from modal distributions of speech sounds along acoustic continua. For example, tokens of the sounds /b/ and /p/ cluster around different mean voice onset times. To disambiguate overlapping distributions, contextual theories propose that phonetic category learning is informed by higher-level patterns (e.g., words) in which phonemes normally occur. For example, the vowel sounds /Ι/ and /e/ can occupy similar perceptual spaces but can be distinguished in the context of "with" and "well." Both distributional and contextual cues appear to function in speech acquisition. Non-human species also benefit from distributional cues for category learning, but whether category learning benefits from contextual information in non-human animals is unknown. The use of higher-level patterns to guide lower-level category learning may reflect uniquely human capacities tied to language acquisition or more general learning abilities reflecting shared neurobiological mechanisms. Using songbirds, European starlings, we show that higher-level pattern learning covertly enhances categorization of the natural communication sounds. This observation mirrors the support for contextual theories of phonemic category learning in humans and demonstrates a general form of learning not unique to humans or language.