“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.