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A zebra finch
Zebra finches learn to sing by listening and practicing what they hearImage: picture-alliance / OKAPIA KG, Germany

Babbling Birds

DW staff (sms)
December 16, 2007

Scientists studying the twittering and chirping of birds have discovered a key genetic link in the "language gene" that may explain why some human infants have problems learning to speak.


Just like human babies learn to speak by fine tuning what they hear from their parents, song birds, including the zebra finch, acquire the ability to communicate from older birds through extensive practice in early stages of their life.

A study released this week found speaking skills suffer when the gene FoxP2, known as the "language gene," isn't working correctly.

Neurobiologist Constance Scharff and other researchers at the Berlin Max Planck Institute for Molecular Genetics inhibited the gene in the brains of baby zebra finches and found that it hampered their ability to learn to sing.

Critical to song acquisition

Seven zebra finches on a branch
Not enough FoxP2 and these birds will have a hard time singingImage: picture-alliance / Helga Lade Fotoagentur GmbH

Scharff and her colleagues used a virus-mediated RNA interference for the first time in songbird brains. The birds with lowered levels of FoxP2 imitated their tutor's song imprecisely and sang more variably than other baby birds whose genetic levels had not been modified.

"FoxP2 thus appears to be critical for proper song development," Scharff and Sebastian Haesler wrote in a study published in the open-access journal PLoS Biology.

The gene was first identified in 2001 when scientists found a mutated version in a family with severe speech problems. Genetic aberrations of the human gene impair speech production and comprehension, yet the relative contributions of FoxP2 to brain development and function were unknown.

Additional research needed

An infant with an open mouth
It remains unclear how much of a role FoxP2 plays in human language learningImage: Bilderbox

"These results suggest that humans and birds may employ similar molecular substrates for vocal learning, which can now be further analyzed in an experimental animal system," Scharff wrote.

The findings could help scientists dealing with human patients suffering from mutated FoxP2 genes and possibly even help explain how babbling babies turn into polyglot children.

"The general language community hasn't yet accepted the bird as a model," Scharff told ScienceNOW. "But birds are not stupid. This study brings that home."

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