Talking animals

When I was young, I believed that animals can talk like humans at midnight on Christmas Eve. Back then I couldn’t verify this Polish folk belief as I was fast asleep well before midnight. Later it became obvious that, just like an angel is not bringing my Christmas presents (another tradition from my homeland), my hamster or dog will never speak to me in a human voice.

But there are animals that can actually produce human speech or even use it for communication, not only during Christmas.

Few of them are mammals. Elephants can produce sounds mimicking some human words by sticking the tip of their trunk in their mouth. Killer whales can learn to “count”, and some words have been uttered by seals. However, such examples are very limited and to be honest, often the mimicry is far from perfect.

Contrary to mammals, birds are much better at learning and producing novel sounds and especially parrots are excellent mimics and users of human language.

Many parrot species are kept as pets and therefore can hear human speech every day. They are also excellent vocal learners, able to learn new sounds throughout their life. They can repeat many humans made sounds, from whistling to words and whole phrases. They can also rearrange known vocal pieces and improvise new phrases.

Many parrot owners claim that their pets can spontaneously use human speech in an appropriate context. This does not necessarily mean that they understand what humans or they themselves say. They may remember the context in which words were used by humans or learned when given phrases lead to an enthusiastic reaction from their owners and repeat it in similar situations.

However, parrots are actually able to learn to use human language to confer meaning and communicate with humans. One of the experts in this respect was Alex – a grey parrot, trained and studied by Dr. Irene Pepperberg. He could count, name colours and materials and answer questions about objects he had never seen before.

To understand the meaning of different words (human labels for things) Alex was extensively trained using a so-called model/rival technique. In this method one trainer questions another human about a given object: What’s here? What colour? When the second human provides a correct answer, they are rewarded by receiving the object itself. The parrot could not only watch but also participate in the interaction that was adjusted to the bird’s current skill level.

Therefore, like children, Alex (and other parrots) learned best if teaching was referential (labels had a specific meaning connected to an object), functional (the bird could actually obtain the object it was naming) and social (where humans act as models, but also rivals for the trainer’s attention).

And like children, Alex practiced making sounds and played with them. When left alone he was “babbling” and recombining new sounds. New vocalisations could acquire value if caretakers interpreted them as meaningful and intentional, e.g. if “up” was rewarded with a cup together with a correct word, Alex would quickly learn “cup”. And sometimes he combined known words into a new meaning. For example, he merged “banana” and “cherry” into “banerry” which for him represented an apple.

So, after all, there is some truth in an old Polish folk belief. However, If you are now tempted to get yourself a talking animal, remember that parrots are highly social and intelligent and you will need to give them a lot of attention and enrichment. And they can live even 60 years.

And if you have pets that will never talk like humans, remember that they still communicate with you. Have your eyes open and learn how to read signals their send, so that you can attend to their needs and give them a life worth living.

If you would like to learn more about Alex, check out the book by Irene M. Pepperberg “Alex & me”. And you can support the research on parrot communication and cognition here.

Photo from Pixabay

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