Twittering with Aliens

One of the staples of television and movie science fiction is the universal translator that allows humans and aliens to communicate fairly easily. But the reality is that we aren’t even currently able to automatically translate all human languages reliably. If we do someday run into an alien race, will we be able to communicate?

The difficulty of conversing with aliens isn’t limited to learning vocabulary, grammar, and body language. We humans all can (on average) produce and hear the same range of sounds. If the aliens we end up meeting use sounds or visual cues outside the human range of perception, we would be entirely dependent on computers to help us communicate.

Fortunately, scientists are currently studying the language of some of the aliens already among us. I’m not talking about extraterrestrials, but rather non-human animals like whales, elephants and birds. Parrots have been a popular focus of study, since it’s long been known by scientists and pirates alike that parrots can imitate human speech.

Three Birds on a Boardwalk

Are they talking about us?

But observing how parrots mimic human speech patterns doesn’t tell us how they normally communicate.

U.C. Berkeley ecologist Steve Beissinger and his colleagues have been studying a single population of Green-rumped Parrotlets (small parrots) in Venezuela for 26 years. In a project lead by Cornell ornithologists Jack Bradbury and Karl Berg, analysis of data collected from carefully placed video and audio recorders have allowed them to observe how wild parrotlets learn their “names” and socially interact with each other.

It turns out that young parrotlets learn their contact call – the sounds that serve as a personal identifier or “name” – from their parents. The call is modified a bit by individual chicks so that each has a “name” that is both unique and related to their parents’ own “names”.

But this isn’t a language that humans can imitate. The sounds are actually much too fast for us to follow. As Berg describes it, the fairly simple peeps we can hear are actually much more complex sounds :

“The parents can make 20 contact calls in the time it takes you to sneeze.” When slowed down for our ears, a parrotlet’s single peep sounds more like eh-ehhh-gehhhlll-grrr-whoeeeeee. [. . . ] “You can’t make sense of their vocalizations just by listening. You can’t imitate their calls like you can whistle a songbird’s tune,” Berg says. “The only way we can study them is by converting their calls to spectrograms, then running these through computer programs” that search for subtle similarities [. . . ]“

This video has the calls first in normal time, then slowed down so human ears can detect the difference between different contact calls so you can hear the difference for yourself:

Nestling Vocal Signatures from Karl Berg on Vimeo.

Berg and colleagues have suggested that their research may provide insight into human language acquisition during infancy. But it seems to me that their methodology could be used to help decipher the “talk” of non-terrestrial species as well. How could they neglect to mention that?

While their parrot communication research has taken years, I would think that it would go much faster with a species that is both more intelligent than a parrot and interested in helping us to learn to understand them.

And I’m wondering if there will come a time when we are able to use our translation devices to talk to Earthly non-humans in their own tongue, rather than “uplifting” them so that they speak in ours.

More information:

For more about the research on Venezuelan parrotlets, listen to the 22 July 2011 Science Podcast or read the podcast transcript.

There is also a video of cute parrotlet nestlings being fed by their father, who uses contact call “names” to greet them.

You can download software – Raven and XBAT – developed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology Bioacoustics Research program for the analysis of acoustic signals.

Original articles:

Morell V. “Why Do Parrots Talk? Venezuelan Site Offers Clues.” Science 22 July 2011: 398-400. doi:10.1126/science.333.6041.398 (subscription required)

Berg KS et al. “Vertical transmission of learned signatures in a wild parrot, Proc. R. Soc. B. 13 Jul 2011 doi: 10.1098/rspb.2011.0932 (subscription required)

Top image: Three Birds on a Boardwalk by LancerE, on Flickr

Bottom image: Body parts I – What are you looking at? by Sami__, on Flickr

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