Of growing up in 1950s Brooklyn, as recounted in her memoir “Alex and Me,” Irene Pepperberg, PhD, said her only companion was a budgie whose name she since forgot. While that budgie never learned to talk, it did launch a lifelong attachment which came to define the researcher’s adult life.
After graduating from MIT and getting a doctorate in chemistry, Pepperberg watched an episode of the PBS series “Nova” which set her on an unexpected path. The show was about a chimp learning ASL—the gestural language used by Americans who are deaf, hard of hearing or in communication with them.
It set her to wondering: Could parrots be taught to use and understand human language?
Go Ahead: Talk to the Animals
People have imagined being able to talk with animals since before stories were preserved in writing. Beginning in the 1920s, though, Hugh Lofting’s series of Dr. Doolittle books had a knack for sparking dreamers’ imaginations. Still, there was and remains basic resistance to treating the concept as more than fantasy.
Animal behaviorist Temple Grandin said language is the last ability people can point to as being uniquely human. In “Animals in Translation,” co-authored with Catherine Johnson, Grandin put it this way: “A lot of people are emotionally invested in the idea that language is the one thing that makes human beings unique. Language is sacrosanct. It’s the last boundary … between man and beast.”
Grandin and Johnson expressed that, on some level, simply asking if other animals are capable of language amounts to “fighting words in the fields of animal and linguistic research.” Efforts to bridge that gap began in earnest in the 1960s. Sadly, the first attempts to teach non-human animals to speak human languages were utter failures—partly because the animals had difficulty making human sounds.
As reported in findings published in the “Journal of Experimental Psychology” and elsewhere, a breakthrough (at least, by some estimations) came when husband and wife team professor of psychology R. Allen Gardner, PhD, and zoologist Beatrix “Beatrice” T. Gardner, PhD, taught signing to a young chimpanzee they named Washoe after the Nevada county they lived in.
Under their care, Washoe—born in West Africa and originally captured by the U.S. Air Force for space program purposes—learned to use a few hundred signs, made up new terms for things she found novel and developed a sort of grammar. She also taught her adopted son, Loulis, to sign.
What Was She Smoking?
As mentioned in her memoir, Pepperberg said she got to thinking that while chimps and apes might not be able to talk: What about parrots? She knew from experience that parrots are among the brainiest of birds.
She then wrote and submitted a grant proposal aimed at studying whether African grey parrots (described by entities from “National Geographic” to Wingspan Optics as the species’ smartest) could be taught to understand what they were saying. She later joked that responses from review committees amounted to them asking: What is she smoking?
Fortunately, for the reputations of African greys and talking animals everywhere, Pepperberg persisted and eventually bought a 1-year-old grey from a Chicago area pet store. She named him Alex, short for Avian Language Ex-periment. Over the next 30 years, he mastered a 100-plus-word vocabulary.
He also achieved a range of linguistic and mathematical feats which compared favorably with the performances of 5-year-old children.
A Parrot of Renown
Accomplishments Pepperberg attributed to Alex, in a 2014 article for “Scientific American,” included his ability to name seven colors. After spying his own reflection in a mirror, Alex asked a research assistant who that bird was. When the grad student said it was Alex, the African grey asked, “What color?”—the only recorded instance of a nonhuman making such an inquiry.
Alex distinguished shapes, too, both by the number of corners they had (from two to six) and by material: wood, leather, paper and four others. When asked, he could pick out “the green wool triangle.” He could even say what was the same or different about a blue square versus a green one. In tests, he got the answers right 4-in-5 times.
There were other ways Pepperberg said she knew Alex understood what he was saying. If he asked for a “corknut” (his word for almond) and she gave him a peanut, he’d drop it and request a “corknut” again. He later became the subject of an eponymous November 2011 “NOVA: science NOW” segment called “Irene Pepperberg and Alex.”
The star of at least 12 YouTube and other videos, Alex may have been the world’s most famous African grey. He died unexpectedly, in 2007, just shy of the pair’s 30-year anniversary together. Nonetheless, aided by the Alex Foundation, Pepperberg continues working with other parrots: Arthur, Athena, Griffin. To date, Griffin alone knows some 50 words.
Alex’s ‘Uniquely Human’ Traits
Alex’s training and behavior proved that people have yet to corner the market on language use and conversation skills, evidenced by his ability to grasp “uniquely human” concepts:
- Cultural transmission – Words must be learned.
- Displacement – Words can refer to things not in view.
- Variety – Language can be used to express a range of ideas.
- Arbitrariness – Language is symbolic. One word can have multiple meanings; multiple words can mean the same thing.
- Duality of patterning – Phonemes, or distinct units of sound, have no special meaning alone but combine to form words.
Bird brain, indeed!
Chase that Digital Unicorn!
Like what you just read? Follow these select source links:
Alex Foundation. “Dr. Pepperberg’s Schedule.” AlexFoundation.org.
Gardner, R. Allen & Beatrice T. Gardner. “Teaching Sign Language to a Chimpanzee” (Aug. 15, 1969). In Science, New Series, 165(3894), pp. 664-672.
Radeska, Tijana. “Alex the Parrot Is the Only Non-Human to Ask the Existential Question: ‘What color am I?’” (Nov. 27, 2016). TheVintageNews.com
Science Fiction Encyclopedia. “Encyclopedia of Fantasy: Talking Animals” (1997).
Stymacks, Amelia. “Why Ravens and Crows Are Earth’s Smartest Birds” (March 15, 2018). NationalGeographic.com.