The developmental dynamics of marmoset monkey vocal production

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Science  14 Aug 2015:
Vol. 349, Issue 6249, pp. 734-738
DOI: 10.1126/science.aab1058

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Marmosets learn to talk baby-talk

As human infants grow, their vocalizations change from cries, to babbles, to words. This pattern has been presumed to be absent from other primates. Indeed, the development of bird song is often regarded as a closer approximation of human language development. Takahashi et al., however, observed that marmoset cries and calls in the first 2 months after birth mature in much the same way as they do in humans (see the Perspective by Margoliash and Tchernichovski). Calls changed as the infants' vocal structures grew and were influenced by feedback from their parents.

Science, this issue p. 734; see also p. 688


Human vocal development occurs through two parallel interactive processes that transform infant cries into more mature vocalizations, such as cooing sounds and babbling. First, natural categories of sounds change as the vocal apparatus matures. Second, parental vocal feedback sensitizes infants to certain features of those sounds, and the sounds are modified accordingly. Paradoxically, our closest living ancestors, nonhuman primates, are thought to undergo few or no production-related acoustic changes during development, and any such changes are thought to be impervious to social feedback. Using early and dense sampling, quantitative tracking of acoustic changes, and biomechanical modeling, we showed that vocalizations in infant marmoset monkeys undergo dramatic changes that cannot be solely attributed to simple consequences of growth. Using parental interaction experiments, we found that contingent parental feedback influences the rate of vocal development. These findings overturn decades-old ideas about primate vocalizations and show that marmoset monkeys are a compelling model system for early vocal development in humans.

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