Universiteit Leiden

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Michelle Spierings

PhD candidate / guest

Dr. M.J. Spierings
+31 71 527 5015

I am a PhD student working on language perception in a songbird (zebra finch) and parrot species (budgerigar) under the supervision of Carel ten Cate. This work is part of a collaborative project with linguists Claartje Levelt and Andreea Geambasu (UL) and computational linguists Jelle Zuidema and Raquel Garrido Alhama (UvA) funded by NWO-GW. Together we study which aspects of language perception are shared between humans and other animals.

More information about Michelle Spierings


Language is unique to humans. Although other animals communicate, these systems do not have the same complexity, structure and rules as language does. This does not mean, however, that all aspects of language are uniquely human. Cognitive requirements for the perception of language might be shared with other species. These shared principles might be the evolutionary building blocks that have shaped the language faculty as we know it today.

During my PhD, I study which principles of language perception are shared between humans and zebra finches and budgerigars. For example, I studied whether animals can perceive the prosodic patterns of human speech and whether they can learn which sounds belong together to for larger units (comparable to speech sounds that form words). Furthermore, I’ve studied the complex ability to abstract general patterns of sound. I have trained zebra finches and budgerigars to discriminate between sound strings with different patterns (e.g. regular vs. irregular patterns or two different grammatical patterns). When they learned this discrimination, I asked them to categorize new sounds with the same patterns. A correct discrimination requires abstraction of the pattern and generalization to new sounds. Zebra finches and budgerigars are similar in their abilities to abstract regular and irregular patterns; they could generalize the pattern only if certain local features of the sounds remained intact. The two bird species did differ in their generalization abilities of grammatical patterns. The zebra finches memorized the positional sound information, whereas the budgerigars generalized the abstract patterns. This shows that the ability to generalize acoustic patterns is not specific to language or humans.

These language principles that were studied are all crucial aspects of language learning and are developed by humans during early language development (in the first year of their lives).

Together with my colleagues, we try to untangle which principles are crucial for language learning and whether these are present in infants or birds. Together we can understand more of how language might have evolved.


I started studying biology in the Bachelor program of Leiden University. During these three years, I developed an interest in behavioural biology and worked on several projects related to animal behaviour and cognition under supervision of Katharina Riebel and Carel ten Cate. I continued my education with a Master in Neuroscience & Cognition at Utrecht University. My master internships were focussed on animal learning and cognition, first in Utrecht with Simon Reader and later in Cambridge with Nicola Clayton. This continuous interest in research on animal behaviour and cognition made it clear that a PhD in this direction would be a great opportunity.

Grants & Awards

Hurford prize, Evolang, New Orleans, 2016

Best presentation at Evolang, an international conference on the evolution of language.

Famelab National Final, 2015

Famelab is an international science communication competition, in which young scientists explain their research to a laymen’s audience in just three minutes.

Presentation award at the NVG conference, Netherlands, 2015

Best presentation at NVG, a national conference on animal behaviour.

LUF Travel Grant

Leiden University travel grant to visit the Behaviour conference in Cairns, Australia, 2015

PhD candidate / guest

  • Wiskunde en Natuurwetenschappen
  • Instituut Biologie Leiden
  • IBL Animal Sciences & Health

Work address

Sylviusweg 72
2333 BE Leiden
Room number 7.4.18



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