A key feature of vocal ontogeny in a variety of taxa with extensive vocal repertoires is a developmental pattern in which vocal exploration is followed by a period of category formation that results in a mature species-specific repertoire. Vocal development preceding the adult repertoire is often called ‘babbling’, a term used to describe aspects of vocal development in species of vocal-learning birds, some marine mammals, some New World monkeys, some bats and humans. The paper summarizes the results of research on babbling in examples from five taxa and proposes a unifying definition facilitating their comparison. There are notable similarities across these species in the developmental pattern of vocalizations, suggesting that vocal production learning might require babbling. However, the current state of the literature is insufficient to confirm this suggestion. We suggest directions for future research to elucidate this issue, emphasizing the importance of (i) expanding the descriptive data and seeking species with complex mature repertoires where babbling may not occur or may occur only to a minimal extent; (ii) (quasi-)experimental research to tease apart possible mechanisms of acquisition and/or self-organizing development; and (iii) computational modelling as a methodology to test hypotheses about the origins and functions of babbling.
This article is part of the theme issue ‘Vocal learning in animals and humans’.