French Version

A parrot that talks...


by Johanne Vaillancourt

Translated by Marlène Picard (Mooghie)

 

 

It does not smoke, nor drink, but it chats ...


At present, the bird is the only animal of this world (including humans of course) who can understand and speak (with a voice) the language of another animal specie. If some families of parrots use their natural ability to vocalize (speak) in a human "domestic" environment, it is because originally in their own environment, these species develop within their social group an identifiable "regional dialect".

It seems that like us, these birds associate certain vocalizations to various subjects, actions or situations. A group of parrots uses vocalizations and specific sounds to communicate, to gather, or to warn of a threat. Each social group, including those of the same species, develop their own language or, if you prefer, distinct vocalizations common to this group alone.

 

Identification and group acceptance

Parrots in their habitat use contact calling and some vocalizations to convey information. This tendency to adopt a basic language (proto-language) within the group does not seem to be equally developed in all species of parrots. This explains perhaps why some families of parrots are less likely than others to reproduce the human language. The age or size of the bird are not significant factors in this context in determining the language ability of an individual. It is rather, in some way a genetic issue, in part.

Although all species of parrots are capable of vocalizations (sometimes surprisingly so), some species are naturally more inclined to use this form of communication, they are:
 

 

  • The Gabon African Grey Parrot (well known)
  • The Budgerigar (too often underestimated)
  • The Eclectus
  • The Yellow-nape Amazon, the Yellow-headed Amazon, the Blue Front Amazon
  • The Ringneck Parrot

 

The usual vocalizations of a social group are modified by the most "influential" members of the social group (older birds, more experienced birds or those with a strong personality).

Surprising as it may seem, these vocalizations appear to be changing between generations, each next one creating new sounds and "melodic phrases". This could explain why, in a context of captivity, parrots tend to speak the human language even with a congener. It is probable that the human language is considered to be the "influent" dialect of the social group formed with the (human) family.

The young parrot or the older parrot newly arrived in a new environment will learn the common language, already spoken by the humans.

 

Apprenticeship

According to Dr. Piaget, "there would be a profound relationship between language and thought. In humans, as in the parrot, observation and imitation as accession to the symbol would be essentials conditions for the congruent acquisition of language and representative thinking."

In other words, the development of the language go along fundamentally with listening. The other birds of the group, like humans (in a context of captivity), do more than just transmit the language to the young parrot or to newcomers, they essentially serve as role models.

In the wild, a parrot learns through contact with other parrots. In captivity, it is with us humans that he will do its apprenticeship. It will become therefore and invariably its most important source of stimulation. It is essential that the human be attentive to the bird's attempts by responding in a positive and stimulating manner. Thus, a constructive attitude on the part of the human will have an impact on the language acquisition and cognitive development of the bird. For the parrot, communication is a crucial aspect of socialization within his group. It is therefore, essential if we wish to communicate effectively with our parrot that we introduce the bird as a full member of the group (family).

 

At what age will a parrot talk?

It is common in the context of consultations to see discouraged clients because their 2-year old Gabon African Grey parrot is not perfectly bilingual (parrot / human) and can only speak a few sparse words.
A parrot such as the Gabon African Grey, known for its amazing language capacity, will only begin to understand the language around the age of 5 years, and only ... based on the quality and the stimulations provided in the environment. We are talking about language (implying that the vocalizations have meaning to the bird) not the imitation of sounds, phrase-word or other onomatopoeia. From the moment of birth, the parrot is establishing links to the language links, whether be it of avian origin or human, and uses a variety of ways to communicate. Information sharing exists among parrots as in many animal species and they know how to get the attention of others to communicate information.

The young parrot arrives at the stage of primary subjectivity between one to three-months old depending on the species. He begins to recognize its environment and tries to communicate with the beings that surround it (parrots or humans). Around the age of three to four months old, some birds babble their first words, and by about seven months, they begin to distinguish some words, including their names, and to respond.

The sounds, when talking to the young parrot, stimulate the brain connections that are used for language. If we speak a lot, if we often repeat sounds (words), connections are strengthened increasingly and about the age of 1 and a half/ 2 years, its linguistic potentiality is actualized, auditory circuits recognize many sounds (words), and the basics of language acquisition are in place. It is indeed at the age a year and a half that begins the awareness of meaningfulness of sounds (words). At that moment, the young parrot begins to associate sounds to objects and actions he hears and sees (go to sleep, come to eat, a dog woof! A cat meow!). Do not expect anything more before that age. A gifted bird will at best repeat sounds (words), but it cannot be considered language per say or any real communication. The ability to memorize multiple new sounds (words) will appear by the age of one year and it is only then that the sound (word) will start to become a symbol.

The more we speak to the bird, the better the recognition of those sounds (words) that it will use as he gets older.

 

Dialogue?

It is important to clarify that parrots do not use language for exactly the same reasons as humans. Parrots do not converse and do not discuss (at least until proven otherwise). They use this medium to be accepted by the group using the (influent) group dialect to communicate information. Mostly, words learned to handle certain situations that the parrot will use only in some very specific contexts.

For example, every other morning Pablo, my African Grey, uses the following sounds (words): "You look like hell this morning". Personally I do not think I look like "hell" ... at least not every morning! For Pablo, it is a sentence (previously acquired from another family, of course!) that refers to the morning. It is similar to other learned sentences: "Hello, nice day? "He has never used that sentence in the afternoon or evening. For him they are sounds (words) that are specific to certain circumstances, in this instance, in the morning. He does not grasp at all their real meaning, but I think that he likes to see me react to those words.

Parrots do not learn words, but concepts. It is not the words "I'm hungry" that they reproduce, but the amalgam (sound) "imhungry" that is associated with the action of receiving food. Parrots do not know grammar and thus the sentence "Give me a kiss" is a single statement (sound) for designating an action (pronounce "gimmeakiss"). This way of learning a language can often cause difficulties if the teacher is not attentive to the statements taught.

An example: the statement "You want some?" If every time the human gives food to the parrot, he uses the statement "You want some?", the parrot will associate this statement with the giving of food.
Scenario: the parrot sees a humans bringing food to his mouth. With confidence, it will make a positional statement "youwantsome?" a statement that does not reflect his real thought at that time, that is rather "I see what you eat, and I want you to give me the same thing." Well, I can tell you that 9 times out 10 it will get as a response from the inattentive teacher: "No thank you, I do not want some! "

This kind of situation may eventually become very frustrating for the bird who is convinced that it is uttering the correct statement (sound) which in reality should have been taught: "Polly wants a ... give me a ... or I want some please". It is therefore important to convey the right concepts and statements to our parrot if it is to be able to communicate properly with us.

Good concepts exclude homonyms; too difficult to part for a bird. An example: if I teach colors to a parrot, there is yellow, blue, red... orange. Orange could raise a problem... because of the fruit and its pronunciation. So I either skip the color "orange", if I intend to teach the name of the fruit "orange"; or skip the fruit if I intend to teach the color. All the orange fruits could be called let's say "tangerine"; or the color "orange" could be named reddish (and then be careful when offering a "radish"). I try hard not to muddle up cards for nothing. To learn notions of language of another species is already enough complicated for Polly!

A diligent teacher first draws the attention of the bird with a sound (word) clear and precise, denoting an object or action. A single sound (word) for each separate object or action.

We do not use the sound (word) "No" to a parrot as we would with a dog. We would use the correct statement that is: "Do not gnaw, do not bite, do not touch ...." Used in too many different contexts, the statement "No" will lose its meaning and the bird will learn to simply ignore it.

This very important information exchange predetermines the rules for all subsequent verbal communications. Experience is important. The more we speak to the bird (using precise statements), the better the bird's recognition of vocalizations (words) and the better it tries to integrate them in its modes of communication. It will experiment by itself and discover the causal relationship associated with specific sounds.

The parrot is very sensitive to prosody (tones, accents, melodic contours, rhythm ...). He is very receptive to the sound and the tone of the voice. The shrill voices seem particularly easy (or pleasant) to reproduce. As it is sensitive to sounds, it is common unfortunately, that the words said with vehemence, such as profanity, attract the attention of Polly and encourage him to do the same.

In summary, a parrot can learn to repeat, imitate, or it can learn to "talk". Everything depends on the stimulation provided by the environment and the quality of the speaker. Parrots are, for most species, born imitators. The range of onomatopoeia they can reproduce is infinite, from the mere creaking of a door to the vocalizations (3 octaves) by Maria Callas. Nevertheless, it is only in contact with a stimulating social group that it can learn to use meaningful sounds to effectively communicate.

 

What is a parrot talking about?

The language of a mature parrot (5 to 10 years depending on the specie) can be very rich and varied. As it is not in the nature of the parrot to use language in complex ways, it certainly will not learn as humans do to construct a sentence, tell stories or lies, but he will be able to name things, make associations, express a desire or need, describe an action, a situation and objects. Of course, it will have learned to make statements and short sentences (keyword phrase), that you should know are rarely meaningless, at least from the perspective of the bird. It will only be able to use what it has learned!

The parrot can talk about absent persons or objects as well as those present. He can anticipate and respond to action. It is capable of understanding the active form (Polly give a kiss to...) and the passive (Give Polly a kiss).

Typically, a parrot that has some notion of the human language can speak to express a desire or a need, which often takes the form of a request (come here, hop, hop, give a kiss, give a banana, give a hug...), often in an imperative tone (stop, go away, do not do this, don't touch, give...). The interrogative form is also used if previously learned (what is that? what are you doing? where are you going? longtime or shorttime?, what are you eating?) And you can appreciate that these requests from Polly require an immediate response.

The parrot also uses language to describe situations (Dan's gone shorttime; Polly eats a cookie, it's cold / hot!; Hey! it's wet!), or what he considers to be a statement of fact (Johanne's good Peanut, Woody is the beautifulest of all parrots!) or (foolishly) to manipulate these soft hearted-humans with statements that will melt them every time (pretty girl, I love you, kiss me, lots of kisses, smooch...). The parrot can integrate abstractions (colors, textures, hot / cold, forms...) and use them in the simplest way to describe an object or an action that, incidentally, is not always real or substantial in its eyes. For example: a toy ("Gazou wants big red truck"). Sometimes, this toy is located in another room and the bird does not see it, but it knows it exists and so it will request it.

The parrot can also learn various vocalizations (words) without ever understanding their meaning or functionality. He can say when you use the broom: "Ah, it's dirty!" because the statement is learned in such a situation, but it is obvious for someone who lives with a parrot, that it is unaware of the concept of "dirt" and it will remain, unfortunately, a very abstract concept in its mind!

When I take a pencil and I write, my African Grey Pablo will ask: "Pablo wants pencil" and if I add "Why?" he replies innocently "write". It uses the right sound, the right statement, but it obviously does not know the meaning of the word "write." He knows that the sounds "pencil" and "write" are linked and that is all. When I offer him the pen that he asked for, all he does is chew it!

In this article, I have just scratched the surface (very, very much the surface) of this fascinating world of communication and language with the parrot. There is much to say about it ... Continue to browse the pages of this website; there are several related texts on the subject of communication with parrots. Keep in mind that patience and constancy are essential to the individual who really wants to communicate (verbally) with his parrot.
 

 

 

 

© Johanne Vaillancourt 1996 - 2009

 

Photos
Elmo, ara macao, CAJV
Pablo and Gazou, psittacus erithacus erithacus, CAJV
Ara ararauna,
CAJV
Morgane, cacatua galerita eleonara and Peanut, psittacus erithacus erithacus, CAJV