Polly wants to learn the English language

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Although he has a brain the size of a walnut, Alex has redefined the term "bird-brain."

Alex is an African Grey parrot and has spent the past 22 years of his life learning a basic form of English under the guidance of scientist Irene Pepperberg.

And he isn't simply mimicking sounds. Alex means what he says. So far, he can recognize 50 different objects by name, distinguish quantities up to six, recognize seven colors and five shapes, and understand the concepts of "bigger," "smaller," "same," and "different."

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When Dr. Pepperberg works with Alex, back in her lab at the University of Arizona in Tucson where she is a professor of biology, she teaches him by showing him objects made of different materials such as plastic, wood, or felt, and asking him questions such as "How many?" "What color bigger?" or "What color smaller?"

Pepperberg says Alex responds correctly about 80 percent of the time, much higher than would be possible by chance alone. "Sometimes he simply doesn't pay attention or guesses," she adds.

According to Pepperberg, the hardest test so far has been the comprehension test, when he had to look at seven objects on a tray and was asked "What object is shape X and color Y?" "What color is matter X and shape Y?" or "What shape is color X and matter Y?" while X and Y changed with every test.

Through the years, Pepperberg has devised complex and scientifically rigorous tests to make sure Alex isn't receiving cues from the researchers.

For example, students who had not participated in training Alex would conduct the tests. The answers have to be clear and understood. And sometimes Pepperberg takes note of Alex's performance with her back turned, blinding herself from the objects being shown.

When Pepperberg first began to work with Alex, she devised a method of training that took advantage of the parrot's natural learning behavior. They acquire their vocalizations from watching their peers and their parents.

The language training is based on a method developed by German biologist Dietmar Todt, who discovered that the Grey parrot learned phrases faster from two trainers: One formed a bond with the parrot; the other behaved as both "rival" and model.

Pepperberg's book on her work over the last two decades, "The Alex Studies" (Harvard University Press), will come out this spring.

Pepperberg's work touches on one of the most controversial and long-lasting discussions in biology: whether animals are capable of some sort of abstract thought that can be communicated.

On one side of the debate are the behaviorists, who believe animals do not have actual thought processes, consciousness, or awareness. But on the other side, scientists affirm that animals could be thinking and that science should explore this in more depth.

And Pepperberg's research is not simply confined to an ivory-tower world. Her most recent work seeks to apply to the real world what she has learned about how wild parrots think. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, where she is a visiting professor for a year, she is working on developing computer-modulated interactive environments for wild birds that are pets.

"These birds tend to get resold. The average bird will have a minimum of seven homes in its lifetime," she says.

Pepperberg says one of the main reasons for this is that wild birds have behavior patterns that do not make them good pets unless owners know what to expect and are trained to have them.

"They're very social animals. If you get a pet bird and you go off to work and leave it alone all day, it's the equivalent of putting a child in solitary confinement. You are never going to stop a bird from screaming; that's part of its natural behavior.

"But what you can do is figure out what causes the screaming and decrease those things as much as you can. That's what we're trying to do," she says.

Pepperberg also hopes that her work will help people. Her techniques for teaching parrots can also be used to help children with brain-related disfunctions learn how to use language.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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