Birds string together meaningless sounds to make ‘words’

Duo chectnut crowned babbler

A new study sheds light on whether animal vocalizations, like human words, are constructed from smaller building blocks. By analyzing calls of the Australian chestnut-crowned babbler, the researchers have for the first time identified the meaning-generating building blocks of a non-human communication system.
Stringing together meaningless sounds to create meaningful signals is a core feature of human language. Investigating whether animals share this basic combinatorial ability has been complicated by difficulties in identifying whether animal vocalizations are made from smaller, meaningless sounds, or building blocks. New research by scientists at the Universities of Zurich, Exeter, Warwick, Macquarie and New South Wales has addressed this question in the calls of the chestnut-crowned babbler (Pomatostomus ruficeps) — a highly social bird from the Australian Outback.

Meaningful calls composed of distinct sounds
Previous research demonstrated that chestnut-crowned babbler calls seemed to be composed of two different sounds “A” and “B” in different arrangements when performing specific behaviors. When flying, the birds produced a flight call “AB,” but when feeding chicks in the nest they emitted “BAB” provisioning calls.
In the current study, the authors used playback experiments, previously used to test speech-sound discrimination in human infants, to probe the perception of the sound elements in babblers. “Through systematic comparisons we tested which of the elements babblers perceived as equivalent or different sounds. In doing so, we were able to confirm that the calls could be broken up into two perceptually distinct sounds that are shared across the calls in different arrangements,” explains Sabrina Engesser from the University of Zurich, lead author on the study. “Furthermore, none of the comprising elements carried the meaning of the calls, confirming the elements are meaningless,” she adds.
“This system is reminiscent of the way humans use sounds to form meaningful words,” says co-author Andy Russell from the University of Exeter. The research findings, which are published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, reveal a potential early step in the emergence of the elaborate combinatorial sound system characterizing human language.

Understanding the evolution of communication
Last author Simon Townsend from the University of Zurich and the University of Warwick says: “This is the first time that the meaning-generating building blocks of a non-human communication system have been experimentally identified.” He concludes: “Although the building blocks in the babbler system may be of a very simple kind, it might still help us understand how combinatoriality initially evolved in humans.”

These findings raise the exciting possibility that the capacity to generate meaning from meaningless building blocks is widespread in animals. However, the authors caution that there are still considerable differences between such systems and word generation in language. They emphasize that a focus on the acoustic distinctiveness of sounds in meaningful animal vocalizations offers a promising approach to investigate the building blocks of non-human animal communication systems.

Citation: University of Zurich. (2019, September 9). Birds string together meaningless sounds to make ‘words’. ScienceDaily.

Source Link: Science Daily

The rewards and challenges of Content-Based Language Teaching

content based pix

“Content-based language teaching” (CBLT) refers to a variety of contexts where students learn both academic content and a second or foreign language. CBLT characterizes the classroom experience of immigrant and minority-language children who, of necessity, learn a new language and age-appropriate academic content at the same time.

It also applies to foreign-language programs such as “immersion” and Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL), where the inclusion of academic content increases the amount of time that students spend in learning and using a foreign language. CBLT can provide greater motivation for student engagement because lessons focus on topics that are more interesting and important than those that are typical of traditional foreign language lessons.
CBLT may be seen as an efficient way to deliver second- or foreign-language instruction. In CBLT, students do not learn a language in order to use it later to talk about new and interesting things. Rather, students are placed in the situation of learning and talking about new and interesting things while they are learning the new language.

Different academic content offers different opportunities and challenges for language learning. For example, science lessons are often rich with demonstrations and hands-on activities that make it possible for students to understand, even when their language skills are limited.

Lessons in the social sciences may be enhanced through the use of questionnaires and surveys, creating valuable opportunities for interaction. Practice in mathematics can involve students in activities where multiple repetitions are natural and effective for developing fluency and confidence. Readings in history and English language arts challenge students to enrich their vocabulary and to learn more complex syntactic patterns, metaphoric expressions, and a variety of language registers.
CBLT has been used successfully in many classrooms. We must acknowledge, however, that it requires considerable effort on the part of both teachers and students. Contrary to some claims, we cannot expect that students will acquire the new language “automatically” or that all teachers will know how to provide instruction that gives adequate attention to both the academic content and the foreign or second language itself.

One important finding from the many research studies that have looked at CBLT is that students may not acquire the ability to use the new language fluently and accurately, even when they are able to learn the academic content that is delivered in that language. Similarly, some students may give the impression of easy, fluent conversational ability while failing to master the academic content that is appropriate to their age and grade level.

To be successful, CBLT instruction must make complex academic content comprehensible and draw students’ attention to aspects of the language that they may not learn without intentional effort.
Finding the balance between instruction focused on meaning and instruction focused on language itself is a challenge for all second- and foreign-language teachers. It is an especially great challenge for CBLT teachers who bear the responsibility for ensuring that students learn both academic content and a new language.

Credit: Oxford University Blog