Today’s Solutions: October 19, 2021

You may not think humans have much in common with bats, but it turns out these nocturnal creatures may provide critical insights into human language development. Researchers from the Museum of Natural History Berlin spent many months studying bat colonies in Panama and Costa Rica and found that in fact, baby bats babble very similarly to the way that human babies do.

So what does this mean for human language? Finding a mammal that shares similar language development patterns and even brain structure to humans could help us further understand the cognitive and neuromolecular foundations of vocal learning.

Babbling in babies is essentially mimicry. Before they master language, babies attempt to mimic the sounds they hear adults make. The greater sac-winged bat, the species that was observed also practicing babbling, has a vocal repertoire with 25 distinct syllable types, which baby bats replicate. So far, the only other mammal, aside from humans, that has been observed practicing mimicry is the pygmy marmoset.

In addition to babbling, which was recorded to last up to 43 minutes and was universally practiced by all greater sac-winged bat pups, regardless of sex or region, the researchers also observed the bats practicing another distinctly “human” practice: baby talk.

The bats were observed altering their vocal pitch and speed when communicating with younger bats, much as humans change their language patterns when speaking with babies or young children.

These findings indicate that bats could teach humans a great deal about their own language habits and even provide insights into the genes involved in vocal imitation. Researcher Ahana Aurora Fernandez, who was involved with the project writes for The Conversation, “Our results introduce the greater sac-winged bat as a promising candidate for cross-species comparisons about the evolution of human language.”

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