Sheri Wells-Jensen swellsj at
Fri Oct 29 15:58:34 UTC 2010


I don't think I'm convinced that his responses to her were mediated by language necessarily.  Symbols, certainly but she could have as easily "asked her questions'  by holding up a plastic stop sign.  What I'd like to hear more about are the informal interactions where language was used and Alex responded.  there is where we could see words recombining in novel ways: something I don't think he ever did (or at least it was never reported in anything I've read).


Dr. Sheri Wells-Jensen
Assistant Director
English as a Second Language Program

Associate Professor
Department of English

423 East Hall
Bowling Green State University

(419) 372-8935

-----Original Message-----
From: A. Katz [mailto:amnfn at] 
Sent: Thursday, October 28, 2010 6:30 PM
To: Sheri Wells-Jensen
Cc: funknet at
Subject: Re: [FUNKNET] Chomsky


I did notice the "simplified" English, but I'm not sure it makes much 
difference in terms of judging the ability to master human syntax, because 
many other human languages don't need a copula in that kind of sentence.

The idea that you could by-pass language and go straight to cognition 
when the questions and answers are in the form of spoken English, (albeit 
pidginized), is somewhat naive. What we should ask ourselves is this: how 
did Alex understand what Pepperberg wanted to know?


On Thu, 28 Oct 2010, Sheri Wells-Jensen wrote:

> Hi Aya,
> What you say makes sense and the difference between  production and reception is an important one.  For what it's worth, the questions directed at Alex
> experimentally were simplified: "What Same" for example.  Probably the best measures of what he actually understood
> would have come from his reactions to casual speech directed his way outside of the experimental paradigm.  I've read some quantity of the published work
> on Alex and the other parrots, but I've never seen any controlled 
>attempt to measure his (or their) language comprehension outside of the 
>experimental tasks designed to access cognitive processing.    It's 
>fascinating work.  I was quite startled by the things the birds could do, 
>and I'd love to see some experimental attention directed toward their 
>linguistic abilities per se.
> Sheri
> -----Original Message-----
> From: A. Katz [mailto:amnfn at]
> Sent: Thursday, October 28, 2010 4:49 PM
> To: Sheri Wells-Jensen
> Cc: funknet at
> Subject: Re: [FUNKNET] Chomsky
> Sheri,
> What the Alex Studies were intended to investigate, and what we can learn
> from them may not be exactly the same.
> I would disagree that he did not seem to acquire much syntax. In order to
> interpret Pepperberg's questions correctly, Alex had to be able to parse
> them. That's syntax.
> Let's remember that language comprehension is no less important than
> production.
>    --Aya
> On Thu, 28 Oct 2010, Sheri Wells-Jensen wrote:
>> Folks,
>> It's worth pointing out, I think, that the goal of the Alex studies and the ongoing studies of other parrots has been the investigation of parrot cognition not language  acquisition.  Dr. Pepperberg states quite clearly that Alex's utterances are meant as only a vehicle for him to demonstrate his various (impressive) abilities.
>> He does not seem to have acquired much syntax at all, but it's fascinating to note  the other cognitive abilities he clearly has, demonstrated by the problems he can solve.
>> It would be interesting to construct a list of the cognitive abilities necessary to manipulate a grammar accurately and compare those to what the parrots can do albeit in a nonlinguistic context.
>> For what it's worth, there is quite a bit of phonetic detail in The Alex Studies if you want to see spectrograms and such of parrot speech.
>> Peace,
>> Sheri
>> Sheri Wells-Jensen
>> -----Original Message-----
>> From: funknet-bounces at [mailto:funknet-bounces at mailman.rice*.edu] On Behalf Of Keith Johnson
>> Sent: Thursday, October 28, 2010 1:38 PM
>> To: A.Katz
>> Cc: funknet at
>> Subject: Re: [FUNKNET] Chomsky
>> Aya, discussing the problem of demonstrating that birds can talk, says:
>> "If humans had to go through this to prove their children can really
>> talk, they wouldn't fare much better."
>> I think that this is a false statement, as evidenced by the years of
>> research reported in journals like the "Journal of Child Language".
>> Children are studied in controlled settings, and behave differently
>> than nonhuman creatures do. My point is that the linguistic
>> accomplishments of nonhuman species are quite different from those of
>> humans.  This seems to be an observation that we should be able to
>> explain.
>> Barbara King argues that there are more interesting questions that
>> whether nonhuman creatures have "language" or not.  But, I would say
>> that if we are seeking to understand the organic basis of this human
>> capacity we call language, then it is crucial that we understand
>> whether the capacity for language is shared across species.
>> Keith Johnson
>> Professor of Linguistics
>> University of California
>> keithjohnson at

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