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Lattenkamp, Ella Z. and Vernes, Sonja C. (2018): Vocal learning: a language-relevant trait in need of a broad cross-species approach. In: Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, Vol. 21: pp. 209-215

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Although humans are unmatched in their capacity to produce speech and learn language, comparative approaches in diverse animal models are able to shed light on the biological underpinnings of language-relevant traits. In the study of vocal learning, a trait crucial for spoken language, passerine birds have been the dominant models, driving invaluable progress in understanding the neurobiology and genetics of vocal learning despite being only distantly related to humans. To date, there is sparse evidence that our closest relatives, nonhuman primates have the capability to learn new vocalisations. However, a number of other mammals have shown the capacity for vocal learning, such as some cetaceans, pinnipeds, elephants, and bats, and we anticipate that with further study more species will gain membership to this (currently) select club. A broad, cross-species comparison of vocal learning, coupled with careful consideration of the components underlying this trait, is crucial to determine how human speech and spoken language is biologically encoded and how it evolved. We emphasise the need to draw on the pool of promising species that have thus far been understudied or neglected. This is by no means a call for fewer studies in songbirds, or an unfocused treasure-hunt, but rather an appeal for structured comparisons across a range of species, considering phylogenetic relationships, ecological and morphological constrains, developmental and social factors, and neurogenetic underpinnings. Herein, we promote a comparative approach highlighting the importance of studying vocal learning in a broad range of model species, and describe a common framework for targeted cross-taxon studies to shed light on the biology and evolution of vocal learning.

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