alex the grey parrotFrom ‘That Damn Bird‘ in Edge, an interview with Dr. Irene Pepperberg of Brandeis University.
There are some things that the birds do that, colloquially speaking, “just blow us away.” We were training Alex [a grey parrot] to sound out phonemes, not because we want him to read as humans do, but we want to see if he understands that his labels are made up of sounds that can be combined in different ways to make up new words; that is, to demonstrate evidence for segmentation. He babbles at dusk, producing strings like “green, cheen, bean, keen”, so we have some evidence for this behavior, but we need more solid data.

Thus we are trying to get him to sound out refrigerator letters, the same way one would train children on phonics. We were doing demos at the Media Lab for our corporate sponsors; we had a very small amount of time scheduled and the visitors wanted to see Alex work. So we put a number of differently colored letters on the tray that we use, put the tray in front of Alex, and asked, “Alex, what sound is blue?” He answers, “Ssss.” It was an “s”, so we say “Good birdie” and he replies, “Want a nut.”

Well, I don’t want him sitting there using our limited amount of time to eat a nut, so I tell him to wait, and I ask, “What sound is green?” Alex answers, “Ssshh.” He’s right, it’s “sh,” and we go through the routine again: “Good parrot.” “Want a nut.” “Alex, wait. What sound is orange?” “ch.” “Good bird!” “Want a nut.” We’re going on and on and Alex is clearly getting more and more frustrated. He finally gets very slitty-eyed and he looks at me and states, “Want a nut. Nnn, uh, tuh.”

Not only could you imagine him thinking, “Hey, stupid, do I have to spell it for you?” but the point was that he had leaped over where we were and had begun sounding out the letters of the words for us. This was in a sense his way of saying to us, “I know where you’re headed! Let’s get on with it,” which gave us the feeling that we were on the right track with what we were doing. These kinds of things don’t happen in the lab on a daily basis, but when they do, they make you realize there’s a lot more going on inside these little walnut-sized brains than you might at first imagine.
Many scientists are trying to teach other animals our human languages. Presumably the reason for doing this is that it will indicate their intelligence, and perhaps in the process make us realize that we have no right to treat them as insentient, insensitive automatons, or as property, and that as intelligent, conscious co-habitants of Earth they should have rights too.

If that’s the case, it seems to me we’re going about it all backwards. Linguists like Noam Chomsky have argued that when we are young the neural patterns in our brains are actually ‘wired’ to reflect what we learn through language, that we become less and less capable of learning language as we age, and that if we don’t learn language before puberty the wiring in our brains just isn’t there and we become incapable of learning language at all.

So rather than trying to teach parrots and chimps and dolphins and ravens (wonderful mimics, with a repertoire of thousands of natural sounds) and pigs (sensational at video games, and possibly smarter than chimps, but with poorly developed vocal chords) to understand and master human language, why aren’t we trying a lot harder to learn and understand their languages? I’ve read all I can find on animal language and animal communication, and it’s pretty slim pickings. If they’re able to learn our languages but we can’t seem to figure out theirs, which animal is more intelligent?

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  1. Fiona says:

    LOL. Good point.

  2. Sean says:

    That’s an interesting question about which of us is more intelligent. On somewhat basic, and purely functional, levels, we seem to have some success in understanding animal communication. We’ve learned, for instance, how birds and monkeys use volume and pitch to identify the distance, and possibly the size, of intruders, and Karl Von Frisch won a Nobel prize in the early 70s for demonstrating how the bee dance relates the precise distance and direction of food.The jump between understanding purely functional communication and undestanding some kind of semantics, though, seems awfully big across species. The study of linguistics in human language itself seems, at this point, to be quite recent (in the scale of world history). Even today, differing cultural semantics creates problems in simple business relations. (Think of the classic American- Japanese price haggling example.) Perhaps as we learn more about how semantics crosses cultural and language boundries within our own species, the divide between species will become less.As somewhat of a postscipt, the Animal Communication Project is a somewhat recent attempt to provide a clearinghouse for animal communication research.

  3. judith says:

    i once knew a blue fronted amazon (amazona aestiva) parrot who lived next door and would sing ‘roxanne’ to me every morning as i was taking a shower… each time i would finish my shower and turn the water off he would go into a fit of wild laughter and shriek ‘you silly girl!’ parrots are so much more efficacious at learning our language than we are at learning theirs.

  4. The phrase “Yes, but it’s a dry cold” keeps running through my mind as I read your article. Cold is not a single “thing” and neither is intelligence. Some smart people have asked me “Does your parrot talk?” and have problem with my response “Yes, do you speak scarlet macaw?” Having done some animal rescue work, I suspect it is more efficient for me to figure out what the animal is about to do (for example, eat) and then give the appropriate command – so the animal and I learn together – rather than me try to learn a complete new language (I’m hopeless with language) or expect the animal to be smarter than me and automatically learn “people talk.” (OK, I prefer that the animal not show off by being smarter than me – most of them do that, anyway) Another fascinating idea, Dave!

  5. Indigo Ocean says:

    This is awesome. What a laugh. Thanks, Dave.

  6. Patia says:

    “Want a nut. Nnn, uh, tuh.”I love it!

  7. Hehe, that’s a smart parrot ! Language experiments are interesting …To the “which one is more intelligent” question, I may answer that it takes more inteligence to teach a language than to learn one.But then I can imagine that parrot talking to his friends “Today was so boring at the lab, I was trying to teach this guy to give me nuts, I have to reward him by making sounds he likes, he’s so greedy, every day he wants more …”Interesting about pigs, I didn’t know they were that smart … I should stop reading this blog or I’ll turn out vegetarian like my father !

  8. Oh, and I would just love to have a recording of “Want a nut. Nnn, uh, tuh.”, it’d make a great system sound for my computer :)

  9. Serena says:

    Many scientists are trying to teach other animals our human languages. Presumably the reason for doing this is that it will indicate their intelligence (the scientists!)Thank you for your post, this is my veiw…”Not to hurt our humble brethren (the animals) is our first duty to them, but to stop there is not enough. We have a higher mission – to be of service to them whenever they require it. If you have men who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men.” Saint Francis of Assisi

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