Ask A Scientist

Could animals ever learn to speak English?

Asked by: Jaime Fidler-Young
School: St James Middle School
Grade: 8
Teacher: Mrs. Hantsch
Hobbies/Interests: Jaime enjoys swimming, playing basketball, and hanging out with friends.
Career Interest: Jaime wants to become an oral surgeon

Answer from Debbie Dittrich

Research Support Specialist, Binghamton University

 Debbie's research area is the teardown analysis of electronic packages. She has three cats and four cockatiels and is a docent at the Binghamton Zoo. Debbie enjoys nature, photography, and gardening.

Back in the 1970s scientists were interested in teaching apes to communicate using spoken language.  They were unable to teach them to pronounce words, but did discover that the animals could use American Sign Language or symbols on a keyboard to communicate.   

It is now believed that most animals (including apes) are genetically programmed to make vocalizations.  That is, they are born knowing how to make sounds appropriate for their species and do not learn to make these sounds.  A human baby, on the other hand, learns to talk by imitating his parents.  Several types of animals possess this ability:  Cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises), bats, elephants, hummingbirds, song birds and parrots.  We already know that some bird species can mimic words, so if we want an animal to communicate with us vocally a bird would be a good choice. 

Now we don’t want our bird just to repeat words.  We want it to associate these sounds with communication.  Birds do use various songs and calls to communicate with each other.  A bird may use one song to defend its territory, another to attract a mate, or an alarm call to alert others of danger.  Some birds even use different calls for a predator lurking on the ground than for one flying overhead. 

So is it possible to say something to a bird and have it give an appropriate verbal response?  In 1977, researcher Dr. Irene Pepperberg began a study using a 1-year-old African Gray parrot named Alex to determine if this was possible.  Dr. Pepperberg devised a unique method to train Alex, using an assistant who responded to her questions as she wanted Alex to respond.  With this technique, Alex was taught to identify 50 different objects, seven colors, five shapes, and numbers up to six.  He understood concepts like bigger, smaller, same and different.  When shown a collection of objects on a tray, he could, for example, identify which object was orange and made of wool or correctly determine the number of yellow keys.  When Alex wanted something to eat, he would ask for it by name.  He could use phrases such as “I’m sorry”, “Calm down”, and “Come here” correctly.  Dr. Pepperberg had other parrots in her lab that were also being taught.  If they mumbled, Alex would tell them to “talk better”.  One time, Alex spotted his reflection in the mirror and asked, “What color?” thus learning the color gray! 

Alex died in 2007 at age 31. During his lifetime he demonstrated not only the ability to mimic words but the capability to understand them as well. The complexities of tasks that he was able to perform were equal to those accomplished by apes and dolphins. Dr. Pepperberg estimates that he had the intellectual capacity of a five year old child. But although he could use words to communicate, he was not able to use language the way we do. Still, not bad for an animal wth a brain the size of a walnut!

Last Updated: 3/1/17