What Bird Brains Can Teach Us About Language

When Pepper (my African Grey parrot) was just a wee bird, I talked to him constantly. I was told by the bird breeder that not all Greys talked; even though their mimicry is famed, there's no guarantee that the bird will ever mutter a word. But, to my delight, at about one year old, Pepper began making sounds. These sounds were strange because they kinda sounded like the things that I was saying to him, but just barely. He was playing with the word, the syllables------he was babbling! This phase lasted about 2 months, after which he became much more proficient at repeating sounds and words. But still, proper "solidification" of any word or phrase required my input.

For example, I would say a word several times. Pepper never immediately says it back. A few days later I might notice that Pepper has begun to work the word into his "routine." His routine is this: every night at bedtime, Pepper makes a little speech where he recites to himself (quietly, almost shyly!) all the new things and new sounds he has heard over the past few weeks. He does this several times and then falls asleep. He practices! And when he is wrong, I correct him, which he does (for some reason) listen to. He wants to learn the "correct song" of his flock, in my opinion.

A fascinating article up at SEED, written by my favorite African Grey biologist Irene Pepperberg, toys with the idea that the number of mirror neurons as well as brain structure morphology dictates whether birds are equipped to learn a song, or just repeat an innate song. Dr. Pepperberg opines that it is the difference in the number of mirror neurons that a species possesses that allows it to process new sounds and reproduce them. The piece is short and sweet, and worth a look.

To the editors of SEED: I'd love to see more from Pepperberg! A full-length article would be awesome!

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Dr. Irene Pepperberg has recently published an interesting paper in Language Sciences, regarding the ability of grey parrots to learn new words for unfamiliar objects using phonemes they already know. But, intuitively, the ability to create new words out of known phonemes would require that a…
Well, its been a long time coming, and further delayed by grants, labwork, and Irene's hand injury. But, Irene and I finally got on the phone last weekend and chatted a bit about her work, her birds, and her uncertain future in the field. Irene Pepperberg is someone who I've admired since early…
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I knew it would be you to be the first to take the bait (or is it seed?) and comment on that article. I read it in hardcopy and forgot about it since. Irene is a fascinating person with fascinating ideas and data.

My housemates are two CAGs, and I too have noticed babble and "practice," including single words from sentences or phrases, as well as recombination of phrases, such as "Darwin the wonder bird" morphing into "Darwin the brat" (originally "Darwin is a brat")." And there are the astonishing out-of-the-blue uses of words or phrases in the proper context that leave me slack-jawed.
I have also noted how effectively they manipulate their physical environment with those feet and bills. The famous "pull up the string" trick has always been part of their repertoire (toys, not food).
Amazing creatures.

Irene is certinaly a fascinating person, its too bad that in many circles her research is viewed with distain. She's been shuttled around due to funding issues, through a variety of universities.....still many in linguistics think he's just a very well trained bird showing the results of operant conditioning. Bah.

My Eclectus, now a year-and-a-half old, has learned along a very similar timeline as Pepper. Right around his first birthday his babbling finally became a coherent "I love you". One day he added my name at the end, which certainly got my attention. Now he has several phrases in his vocabulary, but he still rarely speaks them when I or my wife are within a couple feet of him. Yet he'll happily talk (or babble) when I'm in another room, even if he can see me. I'm assuming this is his way of calling out to the flock. In fact he seems to enjoy talking or babbling most when he can see me through the entry to another room.