Learn Like Parrots

animal avian beak bird

Photo by Oscar Due Wang on Pexels.com

“When you’re learning a foreign language, you need to be like a parrot and mimic everything.”

I remember telling this to my students when they asked how to acquire a good pronunciation —in fact, good language skills in general.

I must confess that the main reason for my interest in parrot language skills is my love for birds. I am a bird person! (never been either a dog or a cat person). Besides their beauty, I love birds because they are virtuosos of singing and, in the case of parrots, imitation. I follow many Instagram profiles that feature cute talking, singing, and dancing parrots, but until now I had let myself get carried away by the cuteness overload rather than seriously studying how they are capable of imitating speech and seemingly interact with people, and how those abilities might be related to human language learning. As it turned out, some research confirmed what I had always suspected: parrot language and human language have some remarkable similarities and foreign language students would do well taking my advice and parroting their new language away —at least to some extent.

Parrots and Humans are Vocal Learners

Parrots and humans are among the select group of vocal learning species —songbirds, hummingbirds, elephants, bats, dolphins, and beluga whales are members, too. Vocal learners have a set of innate abilities and anatomical structures to acquire, modify and vocalize acoustic sounds from auditory input. Those vocalizations are arranged into a syntax that may be more or less complex according to the species.

The difference between us and any other species of vocal learners is the creative use of language. Humans can encode and decode an infinite number of auditory input combinations, which are embedded with meaning and used freely and creatively (within the constraints of the syntactic rules of our languages). Our unique and superior language abilities are due to complex specialized language areas in the brain, and as it’s been shown by recent research, parrots too have language-specialized brain areas.

Then, Do Parrots Know Language at All?

Parrots cannot use language creatively. In other words, they can decidedly attach meaning or context to auditory input, but they can’t respond to it beyond the constraints of previous association. A pet parrot might call “Hello, how are you?” every time she hears the front door being opened and sees the coat being hung. However, the pet’s greeting does not entail the expectation for a response, or a conscious concern for her owner’s state; those higher cognitive functions are exclusive to human language.

Parrots, like songbirds and other bird species, do have an innate syntactic template as well as an auditory one. In other words, they can produce vocalizations in a specific order to accomplish a task or convey a particular meaning.

What About Alex The African Gray?

Alex was an astonishingly intelligent parrot trained and studied by animal psychologist Irene Pepperberg for thirty years.  Alex was able to tell colors apart, identify objects by their differences, and count, among other impressive tasks. However, Alex’s behaviors cannot prove that parrots are able to use language creatively, instead, his behaviors show that parrots have remarkable associative capabilities, which are also shown in the wild when they follow a determined course of action according to the call of their flock members.

The fact that parrot language is not as creative as human language does not take any merit from it. Parrots are so attractive to us because they seem to “get us”, and in a way, they do. After all, we share the capacity for language, though at different levels of complexity.

How Can a Parrot Produce a Fricative Sound?

Fricative sounds are made when air is forced between two articulators, like air being forced out the teeth with the tongue extended lengthwise (this is the case of the /s/ sound). How can parrots produce a clearly audible /s/ when they have no teeth or lips? The answer to that comes down to the main avian organ of speech: the syrinx. This muscular structure changes shape and depth to produce sounds and it has two “branches” which allow birds to produce two tones at the same time. That’s very impressive!

Parrots Need to Talk

The need for socializing and communicating is ingrained in parrots. These beautiful birds have complex social structures based on hierarchies and social networks based on the members’ assessment of other members’ behavior. So, just like humans, parrots are highly social.

When a parrot is in captivity, they regard humans as its flock and imitate them in order to fit in. As it is obvious then, the relationship between the parrot and its caretaker is very important for the parrot’s well-being.

The Bottom Line: Why Parrots Are a Good Role Model for Mastering Pronunciation in a Foreign Language

Is mimicking like parrots good advice now that we know that these birds cannot use language creatively? Yes, it is still good advice, especially when it comes to mastering the pronunciation of the new language. Here’s why:

When you are learning a new language, you deal with its phonemes, intonation, rhythm and other inflections. Most likely, you’ll find phonemes that don’t even exist in your mother tongue, not to mention that the natural inflections in the new language (like question intonation) won’t match the ones you know, either. If you ever want to sound like a native speaker of the foreign language you’re learning, you’ll do good to start by imitating as closely as you can, even when you don’t know the “technical” details related to the sounds you’re articulating. This will allow you to train your organs of speech to articulate in the new language.

As you attempt to imitate everything you hear exactly as it sounds, you will gradually master the whole phonological system of the new language -possibly more quickly than if you lose yourself in technical matters. Practice by imitation is the only thing that will create the automatic response in your articulatory habits in the new language —bear in mind that the ability to produce automatic responses is one of the marks of truly mastering a language. This is obviously not as easy as it seems! Never underestimate the cognitive and physical (as related to articulatory habits) effort that a learner has to make to finally adapt to a new language.

Being natural vocal learners with higher cognition, humans should excel at imitation. However, it seems to be extremely hard for some people whereas it is effortless for others. Those fast learners and brilliant imitators are most likely auditory learners (people who process their surrounding mainly from auditory information, as opposed to visual or kinesthetic learners, for instance). However, anyone can achieve a very good level of language mastery at their own pace if they only practice, practice, practice!

When it comes to grammar learning, the parrot advice is ruled out. Memorizing bits of complex language is not viable for creative use. As a teacher, I believe that it is not advisable to even memorize grammar structures! Grammar learning is not a matter of memorization, it is rather a matter of pattern recognition and formation. Train yourself to observe the pattern that a new “grammar” structure involves, and then generalize on it to generate new and creative combinations.

Now you know why and how parrots can inspire you in your foreign language learning journey. At the beginning, you’ll feel just like a parrot —but after learning how awesome our avian friends are, would you find fault with that? Tune up your ear, imitate your foreign-language role models, and soon you’ll be spreading your wings as a fully competent and native-like speaker.

App Review: Awesome Vocabulary Android Apps

Let’s face it: not many learners have the kind of love for words that may lead them to grab a chunky dictionary every time they need to know the meaning of a new term. Some students start off their journey on a new language with the will to record new words in a systematic way; others just jot meanings down wherever they land, but most learners do have something in common: they want an easy-to-use, practical, portable aid to record and review vocabulary.  These free Android apps for varied proficiency levels make the cut for their usefulness and potential to help improve vocabulary consistently in the long run, if used properly and frequently. Each one approaches vocabulary learning from a different perspective, which makes up for adaptability to different learning styles. Choose one and start boosting your vocabulary!

  1. Scan News

This app is sourced from a wide range of well-known news anchors and magazines, both general (such as CNN and the BBC), and specialized (such as ESPN and Cosmopolitan). Not only American or British anchors are featured, Asian, Australian, and European newspapers and journals have a spot. You will be asked to sign up and log in to customize the types of news (or the news sources) you want to see on your page. On your feed, you will be able to read stories from the website of the news anchor of your choice without leaving the app since the original sites keep full functionality within the application.

You may be thinking that vocabulary acquisition would obviously only rely on –and complement— reading comprehension since you’re dealing with newspaper stories, but luckily, there is something for everyone in this app. Auditory learners can watch video stories and podcasts from reputed sites, like TED or BBC Learning English, and read along with the transcript that the app provides. There’s a catch for the video and audio features, however, since simultaneous transcriptions only go for one minute, unless you purchase the premium version of the app. Oh, well… not everything is perfect! Paying to have full access to all the app features may well be worth it!

“Where is the vocabulary improving trick?”, you must be wondering. Well, the defining feature of this app is that you can tap on any word on the news articles or the audio transcripts, and a Word Reference widget will show at the bottom, providing you with the definition or the translation (from English to the default system language on your phone). Whether you get one or the other depends on your settings; choose English to get the monolingual dictionary and make sure the widget shows only definitions (more advanced learners are advised to use this modality, whereas intermediate learners might prefer to leave the settings in default mode, in which case they will get translations to their mother tongue every time they tap on a word). Tapping along on 100 words a day and reading their definitions wouldn’t really help most people master them, so the app allows you to keep a favorites list, where you’ll be able to go back to the words you bookmarked as many times as you want, and see the related dictionary entry. In addition, you can listen to the pronunciation and record yourself, which is really useful for auditory learners, and for everyone, let’s face it –would you really say you knew a word if you weren’t able to pronounce it?

Beyond the advantages of having an in-app dictionary and a built-in list-keeping functionality with a pronunciation practice feature, every learner must find a way to extend the use and scope of the app. Reviewing the list every once in a while is not enough to ensure that new vocabulary will enter your lexicon! My advice as a teacher is to use each bookmarked word in context (in sentences, for easy practice), and even “force” the new vocabulary into writing pieces if you have the chance to.

All in all, this app is very enriching. Not only will you learn new vocabulary curated by you, but you’ll also build on your general culture with up-to-date information in the process. Scan News deserves five stars!

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  1. Knudge.me

If you are looking for a more playful approach to vocabulary learning, and you have a good intermediate to upper-intermediate proficiency level, this is the app for you. This app offers courses (sections with a specific vocabulary focus, such as idioms or phrasal verbs) presented in the form of challenges and games. Each challenge is rather short to complete, which helps keep the interest of learners who have a short attention span –or a long, busy day ahead of them. The app encourages you to follow through with one course before you start another one, but if you feel like skipping a particular one, you can pause it and move on to something else. For each course, you can customize the number of new items you want to learn throughout the day; the app will notify you so that you don’t neglect vocabulary learning even in your busiest days. You will be able to tick the box in each vocabulary item to assure you’ve mastered it, or bookmark specific words, which will show in a list. Just as advised with the previous app, you can extend on your vocabulary lists by using the new words in context, repeating them, or using them in your writing, instead of leaving them locked in the app forever. In the games section, there are several fun and valuable options, like a reading challenge that tests your reading speed and comprehension. The app is colorful and minimalistic, and words are represented in a very visually attractive way that will definitely be memorable for visual learners.

For its variety and practicality, this app is highly recommended! Completing the games and challenges is fun, and we all know that fun is really engaging, and therefore produces meaningful learning.

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  1. Visual Vocabulary

Visual Vocabulary is an amped up picture dictionary. Why amped up? Because once you have taken a look at the pictures and words, you can train your associative skills in several ways: test, listening, flashcards, writing, and pronunciation. With this practice, you’ll achieve full association of the word: visual with the picture, auditory and oral with the built-in pronunciation, and written with the type-in exercises. The content of the app is divided into several categories for basic vocabulary, such as home or food, and each category is subdivided into several other pertinent ones. For each of them, all the previously mentioned practice modes apply.

This must-have app for beginners gets five big stars. Beginners will benefit the most from it, because of its simple yet well-structured vocabulary categories and reinforcement exercises. Intermediate and advanced students can use it to refresh their knowledge, and will most likely find that they are actually learning a couple words that had escaped them before. Visual Vocabulary is definitely worth it.

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Choose the app that best fits your vocabulary learning needs, and download it from Google Play to enrich your lexicon. I will continue my search for the most useful English learning apps, and review them for you. 🙂