|Words and Sound:
Difficulties with Speech as a Means
for Interspecies Communication
Some possible difficulties in discerning a bird's speech:
1) rapidity of the bird's speech, as parrots often learn to speak quickly
2) tone of the bird's voice, a human voice sounds considerably different
3) intonation used in speaking, a bird may put unusual stress on syllables
4) the cadence of speech, the pattern could reflect an owner's speech
5) "clipped" syllables, are some words incompletely said?
6) isolated or contextual speech?
7) slurred words? (either indistinct or linked to other words)
8) unusual words in the bird's vocabulary
9) the listener's inexperience with the dialect of a bird
10) lack of common vocabulary between listener and the talking bird?
11) insufficient effort on the part of the listener to comprehend the bird's words
12) hearing loss, an age-related hearing deficit, in older adults challenges them
13) lack of eye contact or visual clues on sound recordings
There are several problems in receiving messages from a
talking bird. Part of the problem is reflected by a statement
about "inattentional deafness" by Temple Grandin in
Animals in Translation.
A listener must be interested enough to determine the
message transmitted by a speaking bird. Since many bird
owners neither actively listen to their birds nor pay much
attention to the bird's speech, who then will receive the
Many people enjoy hearing a parrot repeat stock phrases.
However, the novelty wears off soon and then the
difficulty becomes apparent; people assume that a bird's
early speech is not meaningful, but they are often wrong.
An owner needs to recognize and explore the bird's
ability to use language during "a window of opportunity,"
usually during the bird's early dealings with its owner.
Future communicative opportunities might be lost,
because a bird simply gives up when it receives no
response. Out of boredom, parrots revert to repeating
mundane phrases that cause a reaction.
If you listen to your bird and work with your bird, there is
a much higher chance that you will be able to communicate
at least on occasion. For example, Arielle learned to ask,
"Hurt?" The word is posed with a rising pitch to indicate
the questioning nature of the utterance. The full translation
for her abbreviated question is: "Is that something that is
likely to hurt me?" (Linguists call such words holophrases;
in such utterances, a single word expresses a basic
My surprising finding is that people generally do not
comprehend Arielle's speech, at least not the isolated
taped speech of my macaw. Why is that?
A child's parents usually understand their offspring's
irregular speech, but a befuddled stranger often finds the
child's speech incomprehensible. A parrot is considerably
smaller than an adult human and has vocal characteristics
similar to that of a toddler. The bird's voice emanates
from its syrinx, which generates sound in a considerably
different way from a human vocal tract. I believe these
factors combined with those presented in the list above
explain why people find understanding recordings of bird
speech difficult. I work at analyzing Arielle's unclear
What is surprising is the lack of interest in bird speech
among parrot owners. Many enthusiasts buy a talking
bird specifically for its ability to speak. Yet the typical
owner, as well as the general public, is not tremendously
interested in what a bird says or whether it communicates.
People don't try hard enough to comprehend bird speech,
and, as a result, they miss the exhilarating experience of
hearing cognitive speech by their bird.
One has to work to develop an appreciation for the
messages transmitted by birds. Learning to transcribe a
parrot's speech has been likened to learning a foreign
language. People generally accommodate strangers
attempting to speak English with a foreign accent. Yet,
listeners are reluctant to grant the same courtesy to a
talking bird that speaks with an accent. The least we can
do is work to determine words spoken by a bird, because
a parrot exerts an enormous effort to learn human
language and to communicate in an unfamiliar way. The
study of words spoken by a parrot is worthwhile. Parrots
like Arielle try to communicate a range of information to
their owners. One story about a communication by Arielle
is reproduced on the MacawSpeech page of this site.
Owners who listen intently will find that their talking
birds are trying to communicate. Bird keepers can learn
how to listen to parrot speech in order to decode the
message. This is sometimes a daunting task, but one
that will be greatly rewarded for the effort.
We don't have to look to outer space for intelligent life with
which to communicate. An intelligent, and sometimes very
opinionated, creature could be as near as the parrot on
Got a problem?
Are there portions of your bird's speech that you do not
understand? I will try to assist in determining a short
passage from your bird's speech. The following media
are suggested: an audio compact cassette, a CD, or an
attachment to an e-mail (sounds.wav file).
You may be as surprised by what your bird is saying.
You are here: Words & Sound
|Challenge your listening skills with a
sample of Arielle's spontaneous
speech. (Sound slowed to help you.)
Arielle climbs to her favorite spot
MAKE A VOCABULARY LIST
Most pet bird owners do not keep track of
words spoken by their birds. Without notes,
it is almost impossible to determine anything
unusual said by the bird. A basic reporting
system for words uttered by a bird is sufficient.
The simplest method is to write a file card for
each utterance and file entries in a box, or
one can jot sayings into alphabetized sections
of a notebook. In either case, owners create a
mechanism to refer to words, phrases, and
sentences spoken by their bird. Keep track
of the date for each entry with notes about
I'd like to learn about your results, because
the data is scarce about the rate of growth for
a bird's vocabulary. You might be surprised,
as I was, to learn that a bird can learn words
faster than young children!
Many people will convert their records to a
computer database. Electronic filing makes it
easier to sort unique entries, to count the
entries, and to order and print the list in
Regardless of how you keep your records, it's
a good idea to have an accounting for your
bird's speech. There are several reasons.
First, each bird's education provides an
unusual way to identify one's pet. There is the
likelihood that the world will learn more about
the capabilities of talking birds if you have a
written record for your bird's vocabulary.
Memory is unreliable. There is another
reason too. It is hard for some people to
imagine, but we humans can learn about birds
and from birds, as a result of their speaking
One of the most important records to keep is
a list of the parrot's hard-to-understand
sayings. You may have to use blanks for
unknown words, or you may use another
word as a place marker. I call such words
"sononyms." Sometimes after months of
thinking about what Arielle said, I come to
understand the meaning for her words.
You are likely to be surprised by some of the
things that your bird says. If you fail to make
a note of the bird's utterances, you will forget
the sounds. Without written records, you are
likely to miss startling communications made
by your bird.
Start keeping records and you will find that
your bird has learned an unexpected range of
expressions. Are you listening to your bird, or
do you ignore its statements?
Arielle spoke in a higher-than-normal-frequency
voice. In her first utterance, she says a rapidly
spoken and shortened version of "(Do you) Feel
better?" After a brief pause, she ends in a
higher-pitch voice saying, "Put your foot there!"
(From a February 2006 impromptu session.)
Photo by Linda Carpenter
As of September 2008, there is a new group at Yahoo that deals with speech by talking birds and other topics
of interest for bird enthusiasts, linguists, biologists, animal trainers, or anyone who wishes to explore concepts
relating to communicating with a talking bird. The description appears below.
Parties concerned and objectives of the ParrotSpeech Group:
|Arielle understands speech and speaks thoughtfully using
English words, phrases, and sentences.
People interested in the study of spontaneous speech by talking birds.
The topics of concern include learning parrot-like birds, cognition,
consciousness, and other topics related to the talking birds.
To join click on the image below or submit your request to the group
by entering the subscription link into your browser.