The multi-dimensional nature of vocal learning

Sonja Vernes*, Buddhamas Pralle Kriengwatana, Veronika Beeck, Julia Fischer, Peter Lloyd Tyack, Carel ten Cate, Vincent M. Janik

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

34 Citations (Scopus)
5 Downloads (Pure)


How learning affects vocalizations is a key question in the study of animal communication and human language. Parallel efforts in birds and humans have taught us much about how vocal learning works on a behavioural and neurobiological level. Subsequent efforts have revealed a variety of cases among mammals in which experience also has a major influence on vocal repertoires. Janik and Slater (Anim. Behav.60, 1–11. (doi:10.1006/anbe.2000.1410)) introduced the distinction between vocal usage and production learning, providing a general framework to categorize how different types of learning influence vocalizations. This idea was built on by Petkov and Jarvis (Front. Evol. Neurosci.4, 12. (doi:10.3389/fnevo.2012.00012)) to emphasize a more continuous distribution between limited and more complex vocal production learners. Yet, with more studies providing empirical data, the limits of the initial frameworks become apparent. We build on these frameworks to refine the categorization of vocal learning in light of advances made since their publication and widespread agreement that vocal learning is not a binary trait. We propose a novel classification system, based on the definitions by Janik and Slater, that deconstructs vocal learning into key dimensions to aid in understanding the mechanisms involved in this complex behaviour. We consider how vocalizations can change without learning, and a usage learning framework that considers context specificity and timing. We identify dimensions of vocal production learning, including the copying of auditory models (convergence/divergence on model sounds, accuracy of copying), the degree of change (type and breadth of learning) and timing (when learning takes place, the length of time it takes and how long it is retained). We consider grey areas of classification and current mechanistic understanding of these behaviours. Our framework identifies research needs and will help to inform neurobiological and evolutionary studies endeavouring to uncover the multi-dimensional nature of vocal learning.
Original languageEnglish
Article number20200236
Number of pages15
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. B, Biological Sciences
Issue number1836
Early online date6 Sept 2021
Publication statusPublished - 25 Oct 2021


  • Vocal learning
  • Songbird
  • Cognition
  • Behaviour
  • Evolution
  • Language


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