Where Talib Kweli Learned the Power of Language: Mom the Prof



Welcome to AMERICAN MOSAIC in VOA Special English.


I'm Doug Johnson. On our show this week:

We listen to some hip-hop music from Talib Kweli ...

Answer a question about American slang ...

And report about a famous parrot.



A talking parrot named Alex died earlier this month at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. For thirty years, Alex helped scientists learn about the brains of avians, or birds. He changed the idea that parrots can only repeat words without understanding them. Faith Lapidus has more.


In nineteen seventy-three, Irene Pepperberg was studying at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She was working to get a doctoral degree in chemistry. Then a television program changed her plans.

The program told about how birds sing. Miz Pepperberg completed her requirements in chemistry. But she decided she would study bird recognition and communication instead.

She bought an African Grey parrot at a pet store in nineteen seventy-seven. Miz Pepperberg called the parrot Alex.

She spent the next thirty years teaching Alex. The parrot learned more than one hundred words. He could identify fifty different objects by name. He could recognize seven colors and five shapes.

For example, when shown a group of objects, Alex could identify which ones were blue, metal or round. He could count objects to six, and was working on seven and eight when he died. His abilities changed the way many scientists understand the avian brain.

IRENE PEPPERBERG: "What color's smaller?"

ALEX: "Orange."

IRENE PEPPERBERG: "Orange is right. Good boy!"

Alex seemed pleased with his abilities. Sometimes he appeared to criticize two other parrots that Miz Pepperberg was studying. "Talk better," he would tell Arthur and Griffin. Reseachers in Miz Pepperberg's laboratory, however, say the parrot might just have been repeating words he had heard.

Experts say Alex had the intelligence of a five-year-old child and the emotions of a two-year- old. Miz Pepperberg said he would sometimes get angry and throw things on the floor.

Alex and Miz Pepperberg did their research at a number of America's finest universities. They often appeared on television science programs worldwide. Irene Pepperberg published a book called "The Alex Studies" in nineteen ninety-nine. She says she will continue her research with Arthur and Griffin.

What Alex taught Miz Pepperberg about learning and communication has been used to help children with learning disabilities.



Today we answer a question from a listener in Argentina. Viktor Martinez wants to know about slang. Slang is a popular, less official and often very current form of language. It is an important part of a living language and is constantly changing as language changes. Slang is often playful, direct and sometimes less respectful than the more official and traditional version of language. So now I'm going to lay it on you! To "lay it on" is American slang for "to tell" or "to explain."

Slang can take many forms. For example, slang can be local to one city or area. In Washington, D.C. there is a whole set of slang to describe politics and business in the city. For example, the term POTUS stands for President of the United States. POTUS can often be found with his wife, FLOTUS, the first lady of the United States. "Inside the Beltway" is a popular expression that describes the area of Washington, D.C. The beltway is the large highway that circles the city.

The Internet has helped create a whole new kind of computer-related slang. An "angry fruit salad" is an expression that describes a Web site with too many bright colors. "Netiquette" is slang for correct behavior when using the Internet.

Young people often develop the latest slang. For example, to say Special English "rocks" or is "phat" means Special English is really great. A "kegger" is a party where beer is served. If something is "wack" it is wild and crazy.

Different professions often have their own slang as well. For example, medical workers might refer to a complaining patient as a "gomer." A "tough stick" is someone whose veins are difficult to find when he or she needs to have blood taken.

No matter how well you speak English, there are always new and interesting slang words to discover. There are entire dictionaries for describing slang. Many experts do not even agree on what is and what is not slang. Often slang words later become a part of officially accepted language. Official or not, slang is an energetic and exciting part of the American language that continues to change.

Talib Kweli



That was "Get By" from Talib Kweli's two thousand two album, "Quality." Kweli is often called a thoughtful rapper. Critics say his work has deeper, more intelligent messages than most rap songs. The Blacksmith music agency that represents Talib Kweli says he is able to "educate and entertain" at the same time. Katherine Cole plays more of his music.


Talib Kweli has said he does not want to make what he calls "candy music" -- music that tastes good but is not good for you. But his new album "Eardrum" is proving popular. Immediately after its release last month "Eardrum" went to the number two spot on Billboard magazine's hip-hop chart. This single, "Hot Thing," helped put it there.


Talib Kweli has worked in the music industry for ten years. At thirty-two, the Brooklyn, New York, native has released five albums. His mother, a college professor of black literature, influenced Kweli's work greatly. He told one reporter that she made sure he understood the power of language and of his community.

Talib Kweli released "The Beautiful Struggle" in two thousand four. Here is "Black Girl Pain" from that album.


Talib Kweli may be feeling a little trapped by his recognition as a thoughtful rapper. He says his next album will be called "Prisoner of Conscious." We leave you now with "Country Cousins" from "Eardrum."



I'm Doug Johnson. I hope you enjoyed our program today.

It was written by Dana Demange, Jerilyn Watson and Caty Weaver, who also was our producer.

Join us again next week for AMERICAN MOSAIC, VOA's radio magazine in Special English.