A Moment of Science

Speaking with Tongues

We’ve all heard a parrot “talk.”

Studying the way parrots vocalize can help scientists better understand the way humans vocalize. If you think of it, birdsong and talking have a lot in common. Birds learn to sing by listening, just like we learn to talk. Both birds and humans have specific areas in their brains responsible for communication.

Birds have a voice box organ at the base of their trachea called the syrinx, which is responsible for initiating and modulating sound. However, if you’ve ever seen a parrot vocalizing, you may have noticed that it bobs its tongue back and forth. Still, until recently, scientists weren’t sure whether moving the tongue had any effect on the sound making its way up and out of the parrot’s throat.

Tongue position certainly affects human speech and parrot vocalization too. Researchers at Indiana University replaced the syrinx in five monk parrots with a tiny speaker and then played sounds through it, checking to see whether moving the parrot’s tongue had any effect on the vocalization. Moving the tongue even just a fraction of a millimeter significantly changed the quality of the emerging sound. The difference was larger than the difference between the A sound and the O sound in human vowels.

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