A New Take on the English-Speaking Parrot Who Learned Spanish

the spanish language, not the bird, may deserve the credit

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

A Californian parrot lost in 2010 returned speaking Spanish four years later, The Guardian reported. The story has gone viral again, inviting a new look not at the bird, but the language.

Close up of a large African Grey Parrot
African grey parrots are well-known for their high level of intelligence and exceptional speaking abilities. Photo by Robdimagery / Shutterstock

Nigel, the British-born African grey parrot who made headlines in 2014 for trading in his British accent for some Spanish vocabulary, is recirculating the internet five years after his return home thanks to some viral posts by social media influencers. Parrot language skills have long been established as a striking form of animal intelligence, but some of Nigel’s bilingualism may owe to the ease of learning the Spanish language, which—like the other romance languages—is rooted in Latin.

Learning to Learn

According to BBC News, there were 41 million native speakers of Spanish in the United States as of 2016 and another 12 million bilingual Spanish-speakers. In order to learn the language, a positive and curious attitude may be more helpful than you’d think. “Focus on what you’re hearing and work to understand something—anything,” said Dr. Bill Worden, Associate Professor of Spanish at The University of Alabama. “That’s a positive approach to the unfamiliar. Instead of being discouraged by what you don’t understand, accept the challenge before you of trying to gain some sense of what you’re hearing.”

A good place to start is with familiar-sounding words. Dr. Worden said that comparatively speaking, English and Spanish have many words that sound similar, which are called “cognates.” He mentioned the Spanish term “el profesor,” which means “the professor;” and “importante,” which is the Spanish word for “important.” Of course, this doesn’t apply 100% of the time—”embarazada” is the Spanish word for “pregnant,” not “embarrassed”—but it can point the student in the right direction.

Should People and Parrots Sweat the Small Stuff?

Like any language, Spanish has its varying dialects. These include variations of vocabulary, grammar, and accent. “But many languages are spoken within just one country,” Dr. Worden said. “Others are spoken in just a few neighboring countries. The vast geographical reach of Spanish, however, leads to a great variety of kinds of Spanish spoken throughout the world.”

In one example of vocabulary, Dr. Worden said that in Latin America, the computer is called “la computadora,” but in Spain, most people say “el ordenador.” Native Spanish-speakers from Latin America pronounce the letter “z” or the combinations “ce” and “ci” with an “s” sound at the beginning while residents of Spain pronounce it with a “th” sound.

And what about grammar? “In both Spain and Latin America, the word ‘ustedes’ is the formal plural way to say ‘you,'” Dr. Worden said. “In Spain, there’s also an informal plural way to say ‘you,’ which is ‘vosotros’ in the masculine or ‘vosotras’ in the feminine. But ‘vosotros’ and ‘vosotras’ are not used in Latin America; instead, ‘ustedes’ is used for the plural in all cases.”

Fortunately, these differences are minor enough that Spanish speakers from different countries understand one another with very little difficulty. Dr. Worden compared it to an Australian speaking English with someone from Jamaica. “At times there may be challenges, but the language is the same,” he said.

New languages may sound daunting at first listen, but tackling them with a curious, problem-solving perspective and not getting hung up on minor verbal differences can be a great start for anyone seeking to broaden their communications skills. Despite how different a foreign language may sound, no one is past the ability to learn it—just ask Nigel.

Dr. Bill Worden contributed to this article. Dr. Worden is an Associate Professor of Spanish at The University of Alabama. He received his A.B. in Mathematics from Dartmouth College, his M.A. in Spanish from Middlebury College, and his Ph.D. in Hispanic Studies from Brown University.