What the Songbird Said: Angela Saini brings language to life through radio

Nkongho Beteck


While scholars believe human language may have arisen perhaps 70,000 to 100,000 years ago, just how it evolved remains a mystery. Shigeru Miyagawa, professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and several colleagues proposed in 2013 that two fundamental systems of communication found elsewhere in the animal kingdom – one characterized by expressive birdsong, the other by more utilitarian types of expression, such as alarm calls in monkeys – came together uniquely in humans to give rise to language.

It is an intriguing but controversial hypothesis. Science journalist Angela Saini and BBC producer Rami Tzabar explored the work of Miyagawa in a lively BBC Radio 4 segment, What the Songbird Said,” that won the 2015 AAAS Kavli Gold Award for radio reporting.  Saini spoke about their prize-winning work with Nkongho Beteck.


How did you first hear about the work of Shigeru Miyagawa and what interested you about his research?


The way I got this one was during my fellowship with MIT, the Knight Science Journalism fellowship. I was there for about a year, and I took a class in Japanese culture, just out of interest. The guy who was teaching the class turned out to be well-known linguist Shigeru Miyagawa. We were chatting after class, and he was telling me about the work he was doing and this great new theory that hadn’t been published yet about the possible origins of human language.

He and other colleagues came up with the idea that perhaps birdsong could hold the key to why human language is as melodic and expressive as it is. When you compare it to primates who don’t have language and whose utterances are very simple, human language is just much more complex, much more poetic.

His idea was that maybe if you combine those two systems, primate system and birdsong system, those two things might hold the root to where human language came from. It’s quite a radical idea. By the time I’d left MIT and my fellowship was over, he’d published it and by then I was having a baby so I shelved the idea for a while. I wasn’t thinking about it. And then when I went back to work after my son was a bit older, I just couldn’t get the idea out of my head. It was just so interesting, so fascinating. The entire genesis of language is fascinating anyway, but this idea in particular was so good, and I thought it would make a great radio story. Radio 4 listeners in the UK love birdsong. In fact there is a program on Radio 4 which is just birdsong.  It comes on early in the morning.  

So I thought this would be something that might fascinate [listeners]. We pitched it to a commissioner at Radio 4. They loved it, gave Rami to me as a producer to work with, and we went ahead and did the story together.


During your research, what did you learn from linguists that you found particularly interesting?


Linguistics itself is very complex.  It’s one of the toughest subjects to get your head around. Its relationship to biology is also quite awkward. The linguists have very big, broad ideas about language, where the job of the biologists is picking apart tiny, tiny little clues. So for example, looking at how birds communicate with each other, if they do communicate. What their birdsong means, how it differs between different species, things like that. That’s just a tiny piece of the puzzle.

What the linguists have is a big theory to explain everything. So they are working at completely different ends of the problem. At the moment it’s far too early for them to come together and meet in the middle. All they can do is feed a little bit into each other. All the linguists can do is provide the theoretical framework, all the biologists can do is provide evidence. Neither is complete, which is why hypotheses about human language are quite vague at the moment.


So do biologists and linguists have separate ideas about how language developed?


It’s not that they have different ideas. They are working on different pieces of the puzzle. I don’t think anyone can define what language is. I think we can say it’s unique to humans. We haven’t seen any other species that communicates the same way that we do. Human language is actually very special. I don’t think we’ve yet begun how to define what language is. We know it when we see it.


How were you and Rami able to condense all the information you’d learned into a 28 minute program, and make it entertaining as well?


As soon as the idea was commissioned, Rami worked with me to develop what we should put in the program, who we should speak to. Once the program is commissioned it becomes a partnership. Intellectually, he’s had as much input as I did.

In a short radio documentary you can’t hope to explain the breadth of work involved. But you can at least pick out a few small examples. That’s what we did when we made the program. Rami found some wonderful researchers in the Netherlands who were doing research with birds, and we used them to illustrate the kind of evidence that might help prove Miyagawa was serious about this.

For younger science journalists, when there are big ideas like this and they’re complex, it can be quite difficult and quite intimidating in some ways. You think, “This is such a huge topic, how am I going to handle it in the time that I’ve got and understand it and try and make it understandable for other people?" My message would be:  You don’t have to understand everything. You just need to be able to distill some of what people are saying and have at least a broad general understanding of what’s going on. By picking out small bits of research that you feel are important. In our case, for example, we looked at bird research. We looked at a little bit of genetic research... by picking those few pieces out that gave some indication to the listener of the point that you’re trying to make. Of course, you can’t cover everything. With our limited understanding and the time limits of the program, we just have to do our best.


Did you face any challenges communicating science with radio as a medium?


With radio you can’t think the way you would with a print story. You have to think in sound. So you have to make sure that the people you interview are animated enough to sound interesting. Miyagawa was the perfect radio interviewee. He was so enthusiastic about the project. He explained it beautifully, and we were very lucky that we had him. He helped make it come alive. 


What would you say are the benefits of being a freelancer and being able to pitch and work on stories like “What the Songbird Said?”


One of the nice things about being a freelancer is you really can pick and choose what fascinates you, and you can give yourself as much time as you want to explore the topic that interests you. One other luxury, because I’ve worked in different media, I’ve done video, radio and I do a lot of writing, is you can figure out, "Okay I’ve got the story, which outlet would it work best for?"

This story immediately said to me radio because it’s about language ─ because there was singing and birdsong. It’s nice to be able to do that. If you are a staff reporter for certain outlets, then you don’t have that kind of freedom. The problem with freelance is you’ve got to go through the commission process and try and convince people of your ideas. That can be a challenge sometimes. I’m very grateful that someone like the BBC exists to put out amazing stories like this and to commission journalists like me to go out there and learn more about them. I think Radio 4 in particular is a very special place that really grapples with ideas and gives you a lot of time to do good science journalism.