A. Katz amnfn at
Thu Oct 28 12:38:13 UTC 2010


You are quite right that Pepperberg does not claim that Alex learned a 
human language. She is very careful not to make immodest claims, as I 
mentioned before, and if you read her writings you will see that she goes 
to great trouble, jumping through convoluted verbal hoops to explain that 
the fact that Alex could answer questions correctly about color and shape 
does not necessarily mean that he understood what he was talking about in 
human terms.

In order to get published by a reputable scientific journal, you pretty 
much have to do that. I do not blame her for this.

What I was saying is that if any of you want to judge for yourself, watch 
the videos. Pay attention also to the unsolicited things that Alex said. 
Notice how he kept asking for water. Notice Irene asking him whether he 
really wanted water, or he was just trying to interrupt. Evaluate their 
relationship. Take into account that answering all those questions 
repeatedly was boring for Alex, and that they weren't talking about 
anything that really interested him. Understand that Irene and Alex had a 
relationship that went beyond that, but that their job was to prove small, 
palatable things involving formal sound/meaning correspondences.

You think Alex's pronunciation sounded mechanical? He had a completely 
different articulatory system from yours. He spent hours trying to figure 
out the right articulatory gestures to make those sounds. He had no formal 
instruction on that! He did it on his time off, when there wasn't even 
anyone there with him. I think he did a pretty good job all things 
considered. Compare his production with those of a human with an 
artificial larynx. For that matter, compare his productions with those of 
a non-native speaker of English. Or even consider this: have you ever 
heard an autistic child who does speak, but who has no affect?

The catch-22 in animal language studies is that if it spontaneous and a 
nonce utterance it is not replicable, and you can't do statistical studies 
on it, and so it doesn't count. But if you go the other route, and you 
create an elaborate structure that is amenable to statistical testing, 
then you take all the creativity the subject can muster out of it.

If humans had to go through this to prove their children can really talk, 
they wouldn't fare much better. But none of us actually had to prove that 
we were talking rather than repeating something we heard, before our 
speech was allowed to pass for language.


On Wed, 27 Oct 2010, Keith Johnson wrote:

> Regarding parrots' language:  I don't think that Pepperberg claimed that Alex 
> learned a human language, and from what I've seen and read of his performance 
> I would have to agree.  Knowing 150 words, and having some intelligence to be 
> able to use those words in contextually appropriate ways, just doesn't 
> display enough creative power to make me think that this bird was using 
> language
> Regarding humans who have not learned language: I'm not sure who Aya has in 
> mind when she refers to "humans who don't speak any language at all".  If we 
> are speaking of deaf persons who don't "speak" it is certainly the case that 
> deaf can learn language without being able to speak.  If we are speaking of 
> people who are isolated from a linguistic community (deaf raised in a hearing 
> world, or neglected children deprived of human contact over years), failure 
> to learn language in the absence of linguistic input shows that linguistic 
> input is needed.  I'm sure that parrots who are not exposed to human language 
> also don't learn any language.
> The more relevant comparison is of humans and other animals when both been 
> exposed to to linguistic input, and from what I've seen there is a difference 
> between the species that needs to be explained.  Why couldn't Alex speak with 
> greater range and creativity given the amount of linguistic input that he was 
> exposed to?
> An aside:  Listening to recordings ( is a great source of video) 
> of talking parrots, I'm struck by the phonetic roteness of the word 
> productions - almost like playing a recording back.  I don't know if anyone 
> has studied these productions phonetically, but such a study might provide 
> some evidence about the phonological compositionality of parrot's words.
> best,
> Keith Johnson
> On Oct 27, 2010, at 10:50 AM, A. Katz wrote:
>> Jose-Luis,
>> So, in your opinion is your statement that human language is out of reach 
>> of other living beings "for the simple reason that they lack a human brain" 
>> falsifiable? Is there any evidence that would -- if presented-- change your 
>> mind? If there isn't, then your statement is an article of faith and not a 
>> scientific hypothesis.
>> What if someone were to say, for instance, that the English language is 
>> beyond the reach of anyone who isn't English, for the simple reason that 
>> they don't possess an English brain? Would you see that this hypothesis is 
>> falsifiable by presenting evidence that someone without any English 
>> ancestry was able to master English better than someone whose ancestors are 
>> English?
>> If so, why not accept evidence that non-humans such as Bow and Alex have 
>> mastered a human language (such as English or Hebrew) better than people 
>> who possess a human brain? Not only are there humans who don't speak any 
>> language at all, there are also humans who do speak some language, but not 
>> these particular two.
>> Best,

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