Learning Through Imitation

Jan 11, 2017


In the University of Wyoming Department of Zoology and Physiology several researchers have been using birds as a means to figure out how to help people communicate better.

Associate Professor Jonathan Prather and graduate students Koedi Lawley, Jeff Dunning, and Karagh Murphy are researching the connection between listening, understanding, and speaking in the brain. Their hope is to gain some insight into human behavior, since birds learn to sing songs the same way people learn to speak – by imitation.

“We learn the sounds that we use in speech by imitating others, and birds do the exact same thing. When they hatch, they are able to make sounds, but they’re not able to produce songs. They have to learn by imitating the songs around them. It allows us to understand how we speak and how we encounter difficulties with speech,” said Prather.

He also said speech therapists are extremely interested in the research. Prather hopes that by learning about avian communication, it will allow them to gain a better understanding of how to help people work through speech impediments, such as stuttering or mixing up sounds when speaking.

“The challenge with speech is that information comes in through the ears, and that provides no immediate instruction about how to move your lips and your throat and your tongue to create all of the complex sounds that we do,” said Prather. “We want to understand, how are those things linked in the brain?”

Prather said that he hopes the research will eventually allow people to communicate easier and clearer than they do now.