Language learning with Irene Pepperberg and Alex

By Sara Thompson
Special for business

The term “bird brain” has been used as a slur to indicate that someone is unintelligent. For decades, scientists assumed that birds were inferior to primates in cognitive function due to their small brain size. In 1977, Dr. Irene Pepperberg’s research began to change that way of thinking and instead helped us realize how intelligent and capable birds are.

Pepperberg was born in April 1949 in New York. She was an only child and kept parakeets as pets for much of her childhood. She attended MIT and received her bachelor’s degree in chemistry; then attended Harvard and earned his M.A. and Ph.D. While getting her doctorate, she watched a show on PBS about animals and language. Inspired, she turned to the study of animal cognition and language, particularly in birds.

Pepperberg’s first research subject was an African gray parrot named Alex. Its name was an acronym for “Avian Learning Experiment” or “Avian Language Experiment”. He was purchased from a pet store in 1977 when he was about a year old, where Pepperberg insisted that the store associate choose which bird so she could avoid any accusations of choosing a bird with special abilities.

Pepperberg used a teaching method called the model/rival technique. With this method, Alex would observe his coaches’ interactions, one coach would model a desired behavior for the attention of the other coach. This artificially made student coach Alex the rival and motivated him to perform tasks and behaviors to gain attention. The trainers often swapped instructor/model roles so Alex could see the process was interactive. After many years of development, Alex would sometimes model other parrots in similar tests.

After more than 20 years of training and development, Alex was able to distinguish the difference between color, size and shapes. He could identify more than 50 objects and concepts such as “bigger/smaller” and “same/different”. He also seemed to understand the concept of zero or nothing and could recognize when two objects had no difference.

He also knew over 100 words and was the first animal subject to ask a question when learning a language. Looking at a mirror, he asked “what color?” After being repeated six times, he learned the word “gray.” Alex and other birds of his skill level were compared to a 5-year-old human in terms of word and object recognition. To make sure he wasn’t just memorizing, several other psychologists and animal experts were testing Alex by randomizing the colors, sizes, and shapes of the objects he had to identify. It would pass all tests with an accuracy of 80%.

Unfortunately, Alex passed away suddenly in September 2007. The day before, he said his normal goodbye to Pepperberg: “You are good. I love you. See you tomorrow.” Even though Alex had passed away, his legacy lives on with further studies of parrots and language learning.

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