29 March 2019

Neurobiologist Sita ter Haar on the researchproject 'The first 1001 critical days of a child's life'

"Songbirds learn song the same way as humans speech: from their parents"

Dr. Sita ter Haar studies speech development in animals and compares it with the process for humans. In the research project 'The 1001 first days of a child's life', she and her fellow researchers are investigating speech development in babies. "Songbirds learn to sing the same way that humans learn to speak."

Dr. Sita ter Haar

What do birds have to do with the 1001 first days of a child's life? "We humans are often compared to chimpanzees. Chimpanzees do make sounds, but it is something innate. Songbirds learn song the same way as humans speech: from their parents." This comparison is not new. Darwin established the link between speech development in songbirds and humans almost 150 years ago. Nevertheless, there are very few people who are literally comparing birds and babies in the way that Sita ter Haar and Johan Bolhuis are doing. "There is still a lot to be gained. People who could apply the comparison, such as doctors and psychologists, have often never heard of it."

Speech development is an interdisciplinary subject. You truly need the combination of linguists, biologists, speech therapists, neurologists and psychologists.

Combination of expertise is truly needed

Consequently, Ter Haar is thrilled with her interdisciplinary team on 'The 1001 first days of a child's life' project. "Speech development is an interdisciplinary subject. You truly need the combination of linguists, biologists, speech therapists, neurologists and psychologists." Of course, this type of collaboration can be quite a challenge at times. "Everyone sees things from their particular angle and sometimes that makes it difficult to understand each other." More than anything though, the collaboration is a lot of fun. "Thanks to our collective knowledge, I see things I never would have otherwise. When I learn about someone else's perspective, I start to think differently, too."

Through this collaboration, she hopes to gain insight into what happens in the brain during speech development. That will subsequently provide new information about the learning process. The added value of songbirds in answering this question? "Very little is known about the origins of speech development disorders in humans. It's difficult to separate all factors that influence language development and to see them independently of each other. This is much easier with animals because you can adjust conditions. Also, you can describe something on the cellular level that you generally can't with humans."

The influence of sleep on speech development

Ter Haar is interested in finding out which parts of the brain are involved in speech development, as well as which hormones play a key role. "Canaries, robins and starlings learn songs all over again every year. You can see that the areas in their brains and hormone levels grow during the learning process." She shares these findings with the research team, which plants a seed for follow-up research involving babies. The knowledge exchange works both ways. Ter Haar has been able to validate the results of the study on speech development in babies with birds.

Brain development during the first phase of life in both animals and humans fascinates Ter Haar. "Although the first 1001 days in life differ from person to person, the same basis exists for everyone on certain levels. What is innate and what is learned?" Ter Haar wonders. The 1001 first days of a child's life project focuses on speech development because this is the phase during which babies learn to understand, speak and use their native language.

Your language has a tremendous influence on how you participate in society.

Recognise and intervene earlier

"It is important to learn more about that, for example because speech development disorders are not discovered until a later stage. If we understand the causes of the disorder, we can recognise it at an earlier stage and intervene earlier." Moreover, speech development is connected to everything else. 'If we unravel speech development, we can also better understand motor skills development, for example." This is a socially important theme, Ter Haar believes. "Your language has a tremendous influence on how you participate in society."

Sita ter Haar during her 1001 first days

Sita ter Haar's first 1001 days

Sometimes I was in a hyperactive, happy playful mood, and other times I could stare dreamily out the window for hours. I was also very stubborn during the first phase of my life, and I still am. My mother still often reminds me of my favourite expression: 'I'll do it myself.' That never changed, but I have since discovered that working together is very important. Like we're doing in this project! 

Research theme Dynamics of Youth

If you want to tackle social problems, it would be best to start with children. The Utrecht-based research theme Dynamics of Youth invests in a resilient youth. Academics from all fields collaborate in order to learn to better understand child development. How can we help children and youngsters to grow and flourish in our rapidly changing society?​