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Thursday, April 27, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Study teaches birds to tune in grammar Study: Grammar can be for the birds

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Grade-school grammar students should put away their excuses. Scientists say even a birdbrain can grasp one of grammar's early concepts.

Researchers trained starlings to tell the difference between a regular birdsong "sentence" and one that had a warbled clause embedded, according to research in today's issue of Nature.

This "recursive grammar" is what linguists have long believed separated humans from animals.

It took researcher Tim Gentner a month and about 15,000 training attempts, with food as a reward, to get birds to recognize this grammatical structure in their own language. What they learned may shake up the field of linguistics.

While many animals can roar, sing, grunt or otherwise make noise, linguists have contended for years that the key to distinguishing language skills goes back to our elementary-school teachers and basic grammar. Recursive grammar — inserting an explanatory clause such as this into a sentence — is something humans can recognize, but not animals, researchers figured.

Two years ago, a top research team tried to get tamarin monkeys to recognize such phrasing but failed. It was seen as upholding a theory by famed linguist Noam Chomsky that recursive grammar is uniquely human and key to the facility to acquire language.

But after training, nine of Gentner's 11 starlings picked out the birdsong with inserted warbling or rattling bird phrases about 90 percent of the time. Two continued to flunk grammar.

Gentner, of the University of California, San Diego, trained the birds using three buttons on a wall. When the bird pecked the button, it would play different versions of birdsongs that Gentner generated, some with inserted clauses and some without. If the song followed a certain pattern, birds were supposed to hit the button again with their beaks; if it followed a different pattern, they were supposed to do nothing. If the birds recognized the correct pattern, they were rewarded with food.

The experiment shows there is no "single magic bullet" that separates humans from animals, said Jeffrey Elman, a professor of cognitive science at UCSD, who was not part of the Gentner research team.

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