Bonjour! Ni hao! Merhaba! If you move to a new country as an adult, you have to work much harder to get past that initial “hello” in the local language than if you’d moved as a child. Why does it take so much effort to learn a new language later in life?
Our human ability to learn language slows down as we get older, but scientists are not sure how or why this happens. An unexpected way to understand this learning process might come from listening to birds sing.
After all, songbirds have a lot to learn. They don’t hatch knowing what songs to sing, or how to sing them. Instead, they must learn their species’ song. Young birds listen to adult birds and then practice copying the adult’s song syllables until they sound right. If they fail to learn an appropriate song, male birds will have difficulty attracting mates or defending their territories.
This process of vocal learning is remarkably similar to how humans learn language: Babies listen to their parents speaking and then practice making the same sounds by babbling. Because these processes are so similar, birds have long been used to study vocal learning.