Scientists rely on animal models to gain insight into how humans learn language, but it turns out that one of their favorite models, the zebra finch, has been entirely misunderstood. New research reveals that these birds don't simply learn their songs by imitating adults: They learn by watching their mothers' reactions to their immature songs. The researchers found that the adult females guide juveniles' song development through specific interactions, similar to how human babies learn to talk. This study brings the number of species known to engage in socially guided vocal learning to four: zebra finches, humans, marmosets and cowbirds. The researchers' clue to the zebra finch mystery came when they considered that birds see the world at several times the "critical flicker fusion rate" of humans. Simply put, birds can perceive events that happen much too fast for a human to see, and most previous research on social learning has not taken into account such rapid "bird time," in which tiny behaviors can have large social effects.
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