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Language and Learning Seminar: The Evolution of Infant-directed Communication: Comparing Vocal Input across all Great Ape Species - Dr Franziska Wegdell, University of Zurich

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Location: Microsoft Teams

Speaker: Dr Franziska Wegdell, University of Zurich

Title: The Evolution of Infant-directed Communication: Comparing Vocal Input across all Great Ape Species

Abstract: Human language is a key defining trait of our species. Its acquisition is special, relying heavily on linguistic experience, with child-directed communication playing a privileged role. Despite its importance, it is unclear whether child-directed input is uniquely human or an evolutionarily derived feature. To assess this, we compared directed and surrounding vocal inputs between humans and non-human great ape infants. Importantly, we compiled a unique naturalistic dataset comprising all living great ape species. Our findings show human infants receive drastically higher ratios of infant-directed input compared to all other great ape infants but similar ratios of surrounding input. This suggests our last common ancestor relied largely on surrounding input to become communicatively competent, while directed vocal communication became more prominent with human language.

Speaker’s Bio

How do animals communicate? This question occupies me most. That is why I am pursuing a PhD in Evolutionary Biology about bonobo communication at the University of Zurich. The aim of my PhD is to understand the influence of the surrounding vocal environment on the ontogeny of bonobo (Pan paniscus) communication. I, for example, compare how vocal input rates differ between all great ape species but am also describing the first quantitative vocal repertoire of wild bonobos. My research is part of the NCCR Evolving LanguageLink opens in a new window and I collected observational and experimental data on bonobos at the Kokolopori field siteLink opens in a new window in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Before my PhD studies, I have completed an MSc in behavioural biology at the University of Göttingen and studied comprehension learning, alarm call structure and usage in wild green monkeys and vocal plasticity in Guinea baboons in Senegal.

Email Mingtong Li for a Teams Link.

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