- Sara Thompson
Language Learning with Irene Pepperberg and Alex
By Sara Thompson
Special to the Enterprise
The term ‘bird-brained’ has been used as an insult to indicate someone being unintelligent. For decades scientists assumed birds were inferior to primates in cognitive function due to their small brain size. In 1977, research by Dr. Irene Pepperberg would begin to change that thinking and instead help us to realize how intelligent and capable birds really are.
Dr. Irene Pepperberg was born in April 1949 in New York, 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. She then attended Harvard and received both her master’s and doctoral degree. While earning her doctorate she watched a show on PBS about animals and language. Inspired, she then switched her focus to the study of animal cognition and language, particularly in birds.
Dr. Pepperberg’s first research subject was an African gray parrot named Alex. His name was an acronym for ‘Avian Learning Experiment’ or ‘Avian Language Experiment’. He was purchased from a pet store in 1977 when he was around a year old, where Pepperberg insisted the store associate chose which bird so she could avoid any accusation of choosing a bird with special abilities. Pepperberg used a teaching method called the model/rival technique. With this method, Alex would observe his trainers' interactions, one trainer would model a desired behavior for the other trainer’s attention. This artificially made the ‘student’ trainer Alex’s ‘rival’ and made him perform tasks and behaviors for attention. The trainers would often switch their instructor/model roles so Alex could see the process was interactive. After many years of development, Alex would sometimes be the ‘model’ for other parrots in similar tests.
After over 20 years of training and development, Alex was able to distinguish the difference between color, size, and shapes. He could identify over 50 objects, could identify up to six objects, new the concepts of “bigger/smaller” and “same/different”. He also seemed to understand the concept of zero or nothing and could recognize when two objects had no differences. He also knew over 100 words and was the first animal subject to ask a question when learning a language. When looking at a mirror, he asked “what color?” After being repeated six times, he learned the word ‘grey’. Alex and other birds of his skill level were compared to a human five-year-old in terms of word and object recognition. To make sure he was not just memorizing, several other animal psychologists and experts would test Alex by randomizing the colors, sizes, and shapes of the objects for him to identify. He would pass all tests with an 80% accuracy.
Sadly, Alex passed suddenly in September 2007. The night before he gave his normal goodbye to Dr. Pepperberg “You be good. Love you. See you tomorrow”. Even though Alex had passed, his legacy lives on with further studies of parrots and learning languages.
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