Bridging the gap between human and animal communication

June 05, 2018

Language -- one of the most distinctive human traits -- remains a 'mystery' or even a 'problem' for evolutionary theory. It is underpinned by cooperative turn-taking, which consists of reciprocal exchanges of alternating, short and flexible turns between two or more interactants. Turn-taking is used universally across languages and cultures, and shows some signs of phylogenetic parallels in all clades of the primate lineage. Hence, turn-taking has been suggested as an ancient mechanism of the language system bridging the existing gap between the articulate human species and our inarticulate primate cousins. But what exactly do we know about turn-taking in nonhuman primates and other animal taxa?

The researchers reviewed the existing literature by focusing on turn-taking phenomena in birds, mammals, insects and anurans. Simone Pika from the Department of Primatology at the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology, one of the initiators and first author of the study. concludes: "Direct comparisons of turn-taking skills of nonhuman animals in relation to language origins are highly constrained by lack of data, the application of different terms, methodological designs, and study environments".

In addition, research studies have been biased toward birds and vocal interactions and mainly concerned a single key element of full-blown human turn-taking only, the time window. The time-window refers to the gap between an initiating turn and the response turn. It varies in human spoken conversation from 0-500 milliseconds and across nonhuman animal taxa from <50 milliseconds (e.g. songs of plain-tailed wrens) to 5,000 milliseconds (e.g. phee-call exchanges of common marmosets). Research studies on other turn-taking systems --for example gestural interactions of bonobos and chimpanzees -- are currently relatively rare, but „represent, due to the application of key elements characterizing human full-blown turn-taking, the most promising avenue to tackle the question whether turn-taking played a key role in language evolution", says Simone Pika.

The researchers propose a new framework, which aims to enable comparative research by focusing on four key elements characterizing human conversations: A) Flexibility of turn-taking organization. B) Who is taking the next turn? C) When do response turns occur? D) What should the next turn do? The researchers suggest to apply this new comparative framework to carefully chosen representatives of the more than 50 genera of primates and to characterize the existing turn-taking phenotypes. They also emphasize to pay more attention to related phenomena due to convergent evolution.

For instance, recent studies on language competence and cognitive skills of parrots and corvids have put into question the assumed simple inverse correlation between language-readiness and genetic distance from humans. This new field of comparative turn-taking will thus shed light on one of the 'hardest' problems in science by testing whether turn-taking had profound downstream effects on human culture and cooperation, and laid the foundation for the evolution of language.
-end-


Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology

Related Language Articles from Brightsurf:

Learning the language of sugars
We're told not to eat too much sugar, but in reality, all of our cells are covered in sugar molecules called glycans.

How effective are language learning apps?
Researchers from Michigan State University recently conducted a study focusing on Babbel, a popular subscription-based language learning app and e-learning platform, to see if it really worked at teaching a new language.

Chinese to rise as a global language
With the continuing rise of China as a global economic and trading power, there is no barrier to prevent Chinese from becoming a global language like English, according to Flinders University academic Dr Jeffrey Gil.

'She' goes missing from presidential language
MIT researchers have found that although a significant percentage of the American public believed the winner of the November 2016 presidential election would be a woman, people rarely used the pronoun 'she' when referring to the next president before the election.

How does language emerge?
How did the almost 6000 languages of the world come into being?

New research quantifies how much speakers' first language affects learning a new language
Linguistic research suggests that accents are strongly shaped by the speaker's first language they learned growing up.

Why the language-ready brain is so complex
In a review article published in Science, Peter Hagoort, professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at Radboud University and director of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, argues for a new model of language, involving the interaction of multiple brain networks.

Do as i say: Translating language into movement
Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have developed a computer model that can translate text describing physical movements directly into simple computer-generated animations, a first step toward someday generating movies directly from scripts.

Learning language
When it comes to learning a language, the left side of the brain has traditionally been considered the hub of language processing.

Learning a second alphabet for a first language
A part of the brain that maps letters to sounds can acquire a second, visually distinct alphabet for the same language, according to a study of English speakers published in eNeuro.

Read More: Language News and Language Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.