Unifying Vocal Learning

9 - 13 September 2019

Venue: Lorentz Center@Oort

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Understanding the human faculties of speech and language engages fields of research as diverse as linguistics, evolution, neurobiology, genetics and behavior to answer questions such as; how does biology underlie the unique human capacity of language, how did these abilities of speech and language evolve in humans and why did they not evolve in other species? Although speech and language are human specific, some animals display relevant traits, making it possible to use the comparative approach to better understand these abilities.

This workshop will address one of the most widely studied language-relevant traits – vocal learning, its study in animal systems, and their applicability to human language studies. Vocal learning animals are spread across the animal kingdom, being found in animals as diverse as birds, bats, cetaceans, pinnipeds and elephants. No single animal model can provide all the answers as to how vocal learning is encoded, or how it evolved. Rather, we need to seek clues from a range of phylogenetically diverse vocal learning and non-learning species. Importantly there must be strong exchange of information between fields and integration of information across species in order to build a picture of the essential components that would allow an organism to develop vocal learning.

Two current roadblocks currently prevent us from fully profiting from animal models and vocal learning: a lack of unity and information exchange in vocal learning research across different animal species, as well as between human and non-human animal research. In order to overcome this, we will address two key areas in this workshop:

(1) How the diverse fields of animal vocal learning can be unified to produce a clear typology of vocal learning and frameworks for its effective study.

(2) How to encourage bi-directional knowledge exchange between human speech and language research and animal studies, to allow both fields to work together to answer key questions and make animal research more directly informative for the study of human language.

Answering the key questions of this workshop will make it possible to address the biological factors underlying vocal learning, not just how it is programmed in one species, but the potentially multiple different ways biology can encode this trait. It will also allow us to begin to understand the larger forces shaping this trait over evolutionary time and exploit the full potential or animal models to shed light on the human language system. This workshop aims to bring together experts in diverse animal systems and human language research to address these areas and stimulate collaborative research. We also aim to produce two position papers - one on each of the key areas noted above – to drive the future of this field in a positive direction.


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