Alex is an African grey parrot whose use of language has been studied intensively over the last 20 years by animal psychologist Irene Pepperberg at the University of Arizona, Tucson.
Alex has a vocabulary of around 100 words, but is exceptional in that he appears to have understanding of what he says. For example, when Alex is shown an object and is asked about its shape, color, or material, he can label it correctly. If asked the difference between two objects, he will also answer that, but if there is no difference between the objects, he will say “none.” When he is tired of being tested, he will say “I’m gonna go away, ” and if the researcher displays annoyance, Alex tries to diffuse it with the phrase, “I’m sorry.” If he says “Wanna banana”, but is offered a nut instead, he will stare in silence, ask for the banana again, or take the nut and throw it at the researcher. When asked how many of a particular object of a particular color of a particular material is on a tray, he gives the correct answer approximately 80% of the time, irrespective of the correct answer. Preliminary research also seems to indicate that Alex can carry over the concept of four blue balls of wool on a tray to four notes from a piano. Intriguingly, Dr. Pepperberg is also training him to recognize the Hindu Arabic numeral “4” as “four.”
Is Alex using Language?
Although Alex shows understanding of what he says, is he using language? He has a vocabulary of about one hundred words. He has even coined a new word. At first, he did not associate an apple with the word “apple” but instead with the word “bannery,” and since the other fruit names he knew at the time were “grape,” “banana,” and “cherry,” it could be considered to be a linguistic elision of “banana” and “cherry.” Dr. Pepperberg is currently training him to recognize English phonemes, in the hopes that he might conceptually relate an English written word with the spoken word. However, according to Dr. Pepperberg herself, Alex is not using human language, but is rather using “complex two-way communication.”
The mystery of parrot communication is compounded by the fact that in the wild they neither mimic nor employ a complex communication system. Parrots are highly social birds, and it seems likely that when humans are their companions, they attempt to use the communication system of those humans (language). Nonetheless, how these remarkable animals are able to come so close to human language is not known.
Holding a colored cloth ball in front of the bird, Pepperberg asks
What matter? in the kind of laboratory Pidgin she uses to train
her subjects. Alex - who can identify wood, plastic, metal and paper,
among other matter - clearly says wool. Having answered
correctly, he's entitled to a reward - but he has to ask for it.
Unlike animals in conventional conditioning experiments, he gets
nothing unless he asks for it by name, after having given a right
answer to a question. Want a nut, he says, and then happily begins
nibbling away at the cashew he is given (Boston Globe, 18 May 1998)
Pepperberg, listing Alex's accomplishments, said he could identify 50 different
objects and cognize quantities up to 6; that he could distinguish 7 colors
and 5 shapes, and understand "bigger," "smaller," "same" and "different," and that
he was learning the concepts of "over" and "under." (New York Times, 19 Oct 1999)