Thursday, July 10, 2008


This past spring, I decided to undertake a little, "un-official" upgrading to my post-graduate education.

I am trying to learn a new language. Again. (Let the friends and family members who know me-- and love me anyway-- roll their eyes here.)

Oh, I've tried learning foreign languages in the past... I did okay in highschool French, and managed to learn just enough to satisfy my mark requirements for university entrance. I even picked up a few phrases of German from my sister, who learned the language well enough to go on a foreign exchange.

Then, there was the year my father and I undertook learning Italian from a set of cassette tapes, which we played during our morning car-rides together (he dropped me off at school, on his way to work). We actually did far more giggling than learning, as we repeated the (largely useless) tourist-y sentences to one another... The idea was that he would eventually be able to understand some of his favourite operas a little better, without the aid of sub-titles. Which, of course, never actually happened, since we were doing conversational rather than high fallootin' Italian. In actual fact, the only thing that I remember from all of our lessons is a polite, Canadian-esque: "Mi scusi... Excuse me!" To this day, whenever I manage to work that phrase into a conversation, using my finest accent and arching one eyebrow, I can still make my father laugh. Even if he's feeling cross. And so, it would seem that all of our efforts were not completely in vain.

It was my dad who got me going on this new language kick, too, actually. A few months ago, he sent me a 3-cd set, and a little booklet to help get me started.

But it is not a language that, even if I manage to master it by ear, I will ever be able to speak.

And that is because this language is actually sung.

Not by humans, but by birds.

Yes, folks, I am learning how to "birdwatch" with my ears. Because, if you learn to listen for birds, it becomes much easier to spot them, once you know what you're actually looking for.

Not that it's any easier to learn to identify bird calls and songs, than it is to learn a foreign human language... Just like us, birds love to use "slang"-- they change-up their songs, just as we create new words, and they constantly add and subtract "syllables" to and from their repertoire. Even if I manage to memorize the basic songs and calls on these cds, it will still be tricky to learn to accurately identify bird songs I hear in the wild... But, thanks to the fact that I've had a bit of musical training in the past, and have gradually developed a bit of an "ear" for remembering basic themes and tunes, memorizing "the basics" of birdsong has been not too difficult... so far.

What I discovered helps me the most are the words, or "lyrics", that the instructor on the cd has set to many of the bird songs. They are intended to help the listener remember the rhythm and changing pitch of the sounds. Here are a few of my favourite examples:

-Many people know that the American Robin's most basic song can be easily remembered, if you imagine that it sings, "Cheer-up, cheerily! Cheer-up, cheerily!"

-A Red-Eyed Vireo sounds like it's singing, "Here I am, where are you? Here I am, where are you?"

-One of the sweetest songs is that of a Barred Owl, who sounds as though he hoots "Who cooks for you, who cooks for YOOOOUUU all?"

-But my favourite (and my Dad's too), is undoubtedly the White-Throated Sparrow, who sings a rhythmic "Ooold Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody!"

It is uncanny how quickly I've been able to pick up and identify songs, once I've set them to words that I can easily remember.

There are also songs and calls that can be identified, because they are similar to other familiar sound-effects we hear in "real life". The Field Sparrow, for example, makes an accelerating trilling noise, that sounds like a ping-pong ball being dropped on a table. The Black-and-White Warbler makes a sound like a very annoying, squeaky wheel on a child's tricycle.

The ones I've had the most difficult time remembering are the songs that have been set to made-up words. For instance, the Summer Tanager's "Picki-tucki-tuck!", the American Bittern's "WOONK-ka-chunk!", and most maddeningly, the White-Eyed Vireo's "Chick-per-a-weeeeeo, Chick-per-a-weeeeeeooo..." drive me absolutely crazy. That last one has a tendency to throw in a couple of more "chick!" sounds every once in awhile, which throws me right off, every damn time.

Looking back on that last paragraph, it's no wonder I've had a tough time with those songs... They seem even more ridiculous written down, than when I'm trying to sing them out loud to myself. The whole exercise would make rather good fodder for a Monty Python sketch, come to think of it...


Oh, well. Luckily, we've got plenty of Chick-a-dees, Killdeers, Phoebes, and Pewees around these parts. Because they are all a type of bird called a "Name-Sayer": they actually TELL ME who they are, as soon as they open their little beaks, and save me no end of time and trouble.


(Red-Winged Blackbird!! Got it!! Hah!)


mrinz said...

This language will 'stand you in good stead' and, when mastered, be with you for the rest of your life!

Bill Chapman said...

When you're ready to try a human language again, I would like to argue the case for learning and using Esperanto. It is a planned language which belongs to no one country or group of states. Take a look at

Esperanto works! I've used it in speech and writing in a dozen countries over recent years. What do you think?

ewe are here said...

THis sounds like quite a challenge... I struggle enough with foreign human languages!

Good luck!

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