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In this paper, I argue that a comparative approach focusing on the cognitive capacities and behavioral mechanisms that underlie vocal learning in songbirds and humans can provide valuable insights into the evolutionary origins of language. The experimental approaches I discuss use abnormal song and atypical linguistic input to study processes of individual learning, social interaction and cultural transmission. Atypical input places increased learning and communicative pressure on learners. Exploring how learners respond to this type of input provides a particularly clear picture of the biases and constraints acting during learning and use, and simulating the cultural transmission of these unnatural communication systems in the laboratory informs us about how learning and social biases impact on the structure of communication systems in the long run. Findings using these methods suggest fundamental similarities in the basic social cognitive mechanisms underlying vocal learning in birds and humans, and continuing research promises insights into the uniquely human mechanisms and how human cognition and social behavior interact and ultimately impact on the evolution of language.
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