An eye opener

A. Katz amnfn at
Tue Oct 26 20:51:38 UTC 2010


It is not my parrot I speak of. I am speaking of parrots belonging to 
other people. Have you heard of Irene Pepperberg's work with Alex, the 
African Grey Parrot? That parrot is now deceased, but the work is 

Irene Pepperberg is very careful not to make immodest claims about Alex's 
achievements and to couch her artciles in scientific jargon that is 
acceptable for publication, but if you watch the videos, you can judge for 
yourself. She did not teach Alex how to pronounce the words. She taught 
him about colors and shapes. The articulatory gestures were something he 
had to figure out all on his own.

Since embarking on my work with Bow, I have informally met with many 
parrot owners who have experienced this and more with their parrots. As 
a linguist, I was taught to believe that parrots only imitated sound, but 
did not understand meaning. Parrot owners, on the other hand, can tell you 
that parrots will spontaneously announce that it is time for their 
favorite TV show, or that the family car is now approaching their home 
town. Nobody taught them to say these things.

Even so, as a linguist and a primatologist I would caution against putting 
too much emphasis on the ability to pronounce well. That chimpanzees have 
a harder time pronouncing (and in fact cannot be understood when they try 
to speak a human language) does not take away from the ability to 
understand and express themselves using written symbols -- and in fact, 
their ability to distinguish phonemes is no worse than a parrot's.



On Wed, 27 Oct 2010, Yuri Tambovtsev wrote:

> Dear Aya, it is an eye opener. Do you really mean that your parrot can speak better than your primate?
> I mean both better sounds and better phrases? Why so? Does it mean that 
>birds with their limited brain can learn to speak? You wrote that your 
>parrot spoke proper words in proper situations. Is that true? The speech 
>apparatus and the mind of birds is quite different from that of the 
>primate. I wonder how our Funknet colleagues can explain it? The books 
>and articles I read say that parrots and other birds just immitate the 
>sounds without understanding them. What you say is a novelty. As you know 
>I study different sounds human beings use in different languages. I was 
>always surprised why different people all over the world produce more or 
>less the same sounds in their speech chains. Did you notice that your 
>parrot produced human sounds equally well? Be well, Yuri Tambovtsev, 
>Novosibirsk, Russia

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