How Do Parrots Learn to Talk?
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How Do Parrots Learn to Talk?

Published on Tuesday, 4th August 2015
“Does it talk?" is first question people usually ask when they meet a Parrot. And many bird owners admit that the potential to communicate with a pet in 'our language' is a primary reason they became interested in birds in the first place.

You might have heard that not all birds speak, or certain species of Parrot are better 'talkers' than others. Both of these are true. But the world of Parrot speech and language is actually much more complex than you might imagine.


 

In this article, we will learn how Parrots speak to each other and how they are often capable of learning to communicate with human language.

Forms of Communication:

The advantage of verbal (language) communication is it can be used instantly and at a distance, without the need to be viewed by the receiving party.

For social animals like Parrots, with higher intelligence, to survive in a social environment, they need to be able to express or describe more complicated thoughts and perceptions, including emotions like fear, anger, happiness, disgust, surprise, and sadness.



Language Learners: 

Most animals are born already knowing every vocalization of their species language. They also understand and know how to use the 'language' of their species.

Parrots are one of only six known groups of animals that must develop a verbal language to be able to socially interact. This select group includes whales and dolphins, songbirds, bats, hummingbirds, humans and other primates and Parrots.

Other animals are born knowing how to make and interpret every vocalization his or her species uses to communicate.

Behind the beak: Parrot physiology and speech:

Parrots are the group of 'language learning' animals with the physiology to produce the same sounds that are used in human language. While they don't have a larynx at the top of their trachea like humans, Parrots have a similar structure called the syrinx, which is located at the bottom of their trachea in their chest.


 

The sounds produced by the larynx and the syrinx can both be modified into recognizable human type words as they pass through the throat, mouth, and are manipulated by the tongue.

You might think your bird's tongue is not much like yours, but as language experts have noticed, the tongue of the human and that of Parrots share some surprising similarities.

Parrots have unusually large tongues for birds, which it turns out, is important to their ability to make human speech sounds. The size of the Parrot's tongue in relation to its other sound-producing organs is comparable to ours. Sadly, humans are largely unable to produce Parrot vocalizations.

Is My Parrot Just Mimicking?

Parrots do have the ability to use human language when communicating with humans.

Many Parrots have shown conclusively that they can use our language to communicate with us. Most Parrots use human vocalizations mixed with a combination of correct and incorrect Parrot vocabulary in an attempt to entice interaction from the human flock.



Since most Parrots have not properly learned either human or their own language, they are unable to effectively use vocalizations to communicate. If the bird is not using the sound (word) correctly he is mimicking.


 

Imagine this: If you, a human, were raised by a flock of Parrots, you would also experience communication frustration. Because our brains are also set up to learn a language through social interaction we would try to make sense of Parrot language to communicate with our flock members.

Even though our brains are programmed to develop a verbal language, we would be unable to create an efficient language out of the sounds a Parrot makes. Depending on the quality of our upbringing by our Parrot flock, we might eventually learn some of the Parrot language, allowing us to communicate in a rudimentary manner.

Did you know? A wild Parrot, listening to a human raised in his flock, would probably conclude that the human was ignorant; just trying to mimic Parrot language to get some attention!

Is Parrot Language as Complicated as Human Language?

Although there have not been any conclusive studies on Parrot vocabulary, studies on other animals, including many birds, indicate that wild Parrots probably have a vocabulary of sixty to one-hundred words, or word concepts, in their own Parrot language.

Because Parrot brains do not have the same well-developed frontal lobes that allow the human brain to think and ponder on an advanced level, they are most likely only able to develop the communication abilities of a two or three-year-old human.

Their communication needs are much less and mostly limited to the "here and now." Past experiences are only thought of when a similar situation reoccurs and thoughts of more than a few minutes into the future are not possible.


 

Compared to most animals, Parrots are an extremely emotional group. Parrots communicate their emotions mostly through body language instead of verbal language. Human vocabulary can exceed one million words, so body language is less important.

But for animals, whose vocabularies are greatly limited, body language or physical communication accounts for up to ninety-percent of all communication. Parrots and other animals are able to combine verbal language and body language to create a multitude of communication signals.

So if a Parrot has a vocabulary potential of one-hundred words and one-hundred body language signals, he can combine these to create several hundred communication signals. Parrot owners often remark how much fun their Parrots have when the owner attempts to imitate or 'mimic' the body language of the bird.

If you decide to play this 'game' with your pet, just make sure that you have some idea of what your body language means to your Parrot!

Juvenile Speech Development:

The 'Auditory Template Hypothesis' is a complicated name for a relatively simple concept. The 'auditory template' makes speech possible and records, stores, and learns the sounds and types of sounds a particular species language is supposed to include.


 

Consider this example: Two dogs are reared in completely different environments. One is raised in captivity, while the other grows up in the wild. Because their auditory templates are fully developed at birth, their 'language' will be the same.

In contrast, if two humans, or Parrots, are raised in completely different environments, say one in Japan and one in the United States, they will speak totally different languages because their auditory templates have recorded different information.

Phase 1 of Language Development: (The Babble Producer) 

The 'sensitive language-learning period' for the average Parrot starts three days before the baby hatches and finishes at about six months. Language development is not as much a process of learning words but one of learning how to make and use words.

Language development starts with the "babble producer". The babble producer is part of the software of the auditory template and starts the baby vocalizing with babble sounds about three days before hatching. These odd sounds that randomly spew out with no coherent meaning are significant to language development.

As soon as a parent recognizes a sound that is similar to a real vocalization they tend to get excited and repeat the sound causing the babies auditory template to record the sound as a possible word.

The 'babble producer' produces sounds that are found in Parrot language. Some of these sounds are useless and others are similar to words found in Human language. At about three months Parrots babble the sounds 'ello' and 'ioveu.' These babbles get feedback from us that creates 'hello' and 'I love you.' This is likely the reason these are two of the most common human phrases our Parrots mimic.

Phase 2 of Language Development: (Building a library)

As a baby hears words he eventually pronounces a word correctly, a comparison is made with other sounds he already stored in the auditory template and a match is found. This word is stored in what we call the 'library or dictionary'. This feedback process quickly gains momentum and fills the library.

After this sensitive stage, additional language development can occur, but only with limited success. Without proper language development most of the sounds a Parrot will make will only amount to mimicking.

Phase 3 of Language Development: (Verbal communication) 

The third stage actually starts long before Phase 2 has finished. Phase 3 will gradually begin at about two months when the baby begins to develop social skills.

The third stage of language involves the development of two very important skills. The auditory template must master the ability to figure out how 'sounds' represent ideas, and the auditory template must absorb the idea that 'communication' is how thoughts are.

In the second stage the brain has learned how to develop language. The third stage is now involved in picking up more words and figuring out how to use them to increase communication skills.

"Hello?" The basics of teaching your Parrot to talk:

Language development is a consequence of good husbandry (parenting) practices. Learning to communicate with humans helps a Parrot to become a well-adjusted, self-confident individual.


 

The 'sensitive period' of language development last about 6 months. The developing Parrot should be exposed to as much human language, as well as its own species' vocalizations, as possible.

Learning to communicate in both human words and Parrot sounds maximizes a parrots potential to communicate. They must master the ability to figure out how sounds represent ideas and how communication can transfer their thoughts.

Consistent communication with repetition of sounds representing your emotions and actions is important. Soft tones and high frequencies, like a mother talking to a baby, seem to work best. Active babies with opportunities to freely explore their environment will fine-tune their language skills faster as they learn and have fun.

Look out for Part Two where Steve shares his top tips to teach Parrots to talk,

This article was originally published on The Parrot University’s blog and website in early 2015.

 
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