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Noon Edition

Speaking With Tongues

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Y:        Today, we're talking about talking.

D:        I'm good at talking.

Y:        And we're talking about parrots.

D:        Which can learn to talk.

Y:        Which is why studying the way parrots vocalize can help scientists better understand the way humans vocalize.  I mean, if you think of it, bird song and talking have a lot in common.  Birds learn to sing by listening, just like we learn to talk.  And both birds and humans have specific areas in their brains responsible for communication.

D:        But back to parrots.

Y:        Back to parrots.

D:        Hey.  You just parroted me.

Y:        Anyway.  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 not too many years ago, 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.

D:        Well, tongue position certainly affects human speech.

Y:        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. And by significant, I mean that the difference was larger than the difference between the A sound and the O sound in human vowels.

D:        Neat.  So parrots use their tongue to shape sound. 

Y:        Yes.  And, in the long run, studies such as these may provide us with a better understanding of human speech and speech disorders.
Parrot

Studying how parrots use their tongues can help us understand human speech. (JJ Harrison, Wikimedia Commons)

Today, we're talking about talking and parrots, which can learn to talk, and is why studying the way parrots vocalize can help scientists better understand the way humans vocalize. If you think about it, bird song and talking have a lot in common. 

Birds learn to sing by listening, just like we learn to talk. And 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 not too many years ago, 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. 

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. And by significant, I mean that the difference was larger than the difference between the A sound and the O sound in human vowels.

That means that parrots use their tongue to shape sound, and, in the long run, studies such as these may provide us with a better understanding of human speech and speech disorders. 

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