Friday Grey Matters: Parrots Go Through Babbling

While reading a cute (but poorly-written) human interest piece on an African Grey named Valentine, something caught my eye. The author touched upon a particular behavior that Valentine was exhibiting: babbling.

Valentine is the color of an overcast day. His tail is scarlet. He recently started mumbling, whispering to himself, which means he'll be saying words and sentences soon.

People of all ages, from elderly women with permed hair to teens with attitudes and ripped clothes - all say the same thing: "Well, helllloooo. Aren't you a pretty bird? Helllloooo. Hello. Say 'hello.' "

Valentine turns his charcoal back and whispers. You can't hear what he's saying.

I've never seen anything specifically in the literature about this phenomenon, but it struck a chord with me as it is exactly the same behavior that Pepper exhibited when he was first learning to talk . Every day, I would talk to him as if he was a person, from the moment I brought him home as a little chick. He was completely silent for about 10 months. Then, all of a sudden he started mimicking the things I was saying, but his pronunciations and word-order was all garbled and indistinct. It sounded terrible! I thought I had gotten saddled with one weird bird. This babbling often occurred when he thought no one was around, or when the cover was over his cage. It was also very quiet. But, slowly, his pronunciation got better and better as he got continuous feedback from me. At about one year old, Pepper said his first word(s) crystal-clear: "Sup fool." Not sure why he latched on to that particular word combo, but he's liked it ever since.

During this whole process, I was going through grad school interviews for Neuroscience PhD programs. While in the interviews, sometimes people would ask me about Pepper (bird lovers, etc). We would get to talking about him, and how I had crude theory that he was going through some of the classical stages of language development and how I believed that receiving feedback, and practice, was crucial to Pepper being able to reproduce words and phrases. And anecdotally speaking, the more complicated the phrase or song, the longer it sits in rehearsal and practice before being "crystallized."

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My eclectus' talking ability has progressed exactly the same way. Babbling incoherently to himself for a couple months, then right around his first birthday came the distinct "I love you" and "Good boy". At two years he now has quite the vocabulary of both separate words and whole phrases. He tends to talk directly to my wife more than to me (though he likes us equally). Most of his babbling (practicing) occurs when we are not near him, but either across the room or in another room, much like Pepper. Although in Yoshi's case he knows we're around, he just seems to prefer a little more personal space when he's practicing his vocabulary. I think the most interesting aspects of his development have been watching him blurt out words/phrases that he has picked up simply by listening to us talk (as opposed to something we say and repeat to him), and combining words into new phrases. The latter I'm not sure if that's some measure of intelligence or if he's repeating something I've said and not realized it. It's fascinating to watch him learn, however he's doing it.

Cool! I love eclectus parrots, but I haven't been around them enough to know what their speaking ability is. Sounds like Yoshi's is pretty advanced! Yeah, I agree that the really funny moments come when Pepper says something that a) I didn't remember saying or b) wish I hadn't said. He's "listened in" on more than a few tirades on the phone, and haunts me with it the next day. :P

That's an interesting observation, Shelly. I am in a speech-language pathology graduate program and have had some heated discussions with my instructors and peers regarding animals' use of language. I have never seen the use of dismissing an animal's linguistic abilities wholesale, simply because it does not produce or use language in a manner identical to humans (as many of my instructors are wont to do). It seems to me that animals' "failure" to use a particular aspect of human language offers and opportunity to compare how the animal brain processes the task vs. how the human brain handles the same task.
Your post made me think of a study done at couple years ago at MIT regarding song learning in juvenile zebra finches (see link). Perhaps when an African Grey is exposed to human speech it is applying a "song-learning" paradigm to human words and language, resulting in a form of babbling unique to birds (that Greys seemingly prefer to initially whisper and mumble in private intrigues me--I'm sure many parents of infants sometimes wish human babies had the same reticence!).

You can sometimes hear blackbirds softly practicing to themselves early in the spring too. The part of the brain that deals with song grows in birds in preparation for the spring singing contests and then shrink during the autumn. I wonder if you can see the same brain growth in parrots learning to speak?

I once had a Timneh African Grey that exhibited the same behavior -- "babbling" for about 9 mos. in private (never in my presence, only when I was in another room) until he knew he had words/phrases down correctly and then would just suddenly blurt them out upon my entering the room (with a proud look on his face : - ) And once he learned the first few, others followed at much greater speed. I think this is a very common experience among Grey owners, and I would presume somewhere this phenomena has been studied in greater detail (maybe by Irene Pepperberg or one of her students).

I have a six-month-old Congo grey, and she is very much a babbler. I also have a nine-year-old boy with sensorineural deafness. Hmm. He's oral, and developed language just like his hearing peers (hearing aids at 8.5 weeks old). The babbling that the parrot is doing is progressing in the very same way as the babbling of the boy. :-)

Success in teaching a deaf kid how to communicate orally will, I hope, help me teach the parrot a thing or two, as well. She only rarely tries to mimic sounds -- that's just starting to emerge -- but she has begun to use sound to convey information. Just in the last week or two, she's started making this unique noise when she wants to be picked up and held. She has a new screech *sigh* when she is feeling alone. And she's started making a low, throaty noise that's clearly sound experimentation!

I think the most important thing with the parrot OR the kid is to respond when they make noise, either by mimicing what you think they're saying, or reacting to what you think they want. I've gotta tell you, this is a lot of fun the second time around. :-)

I forgot to mention in my previous comment that Yoshi also takes on my tone of voice, depending on what is being said. He, and most eclectus males, have a very pleasant, soft but higher-pitched voice than other parrots. But when he imitates me reprimanding the dogs he takes on the deep voice I use, as opposed to the high pitch I use when talking to him. He'll be babbling away with "Good boy" and "I love you" and mix in a deeper "Get down" or "Off, now!". He'll even throw in the dog's name. When I realized what he was doing I was quite shocked. Now nothing surprises me, as I've heard him imitate both my cough and the referee's whistle on football games. Does Pepper change the tone of his voice this way, or do you know of parrots doing this?

My mother is a speech therapist and was fascinated by my African grey's babble when as she developed language. Apparently my grey followed the entire pattern of language acquisition in almost the identical order that humans learn it, including the various phenomes (in similar order), individual words, and then phrases. It was a really interesting experience for all of us.

Scritches to Pepper :)

My African Grey Dorian is about 5 years old and he will still Babble for fun, he can talk fine but if I am talking to someone else and he wants in on the conversation he will babble in order to sound like me. He also babbles when he sings, making up words to go along with a song or sometimes he just sings phrases that he knows put to music.

He also still babbles when he is learning new sounds/words, especially if they are very difficult to say. If he hears a new word/sound that interests him he will get very quiet and wait for me to repeat a few times, then he will try saying it under his breath, trying to get it right. If he can figure it out he will say it loud and clear. It is interesting to think of this behavior in the context of language development.