“ESL for Birds,” by Nick Hilbourn

Mar 16th, 2011 | By | Category: Fake Nonfiction, Prose

ESL for Birds: An introduction to teaching English to the avian species

Since my days as a teacher in South Korea, I have been intrigued by ESL (English as a Second Language) instruction. After receiving further certification in the area, it occurred to me that there was one important sector of life which English had failed to conquer: birds.

As a strong proponent of the mother tongue, you must understand how it distressed me to learn that there was a subset of earthly life with which I could not converse. In response, many of you may say, ‘Well, Nick, I happen to know many animals which can’t speak English: dogs, cats, guinea pigs, mice…”

This is a very narrow-minded view of the animal kingdom. Dogs, in fact, are very good at listening comprehension, although their speaking and pronunciation suffer. Cats have no desire to pursue listening or speaking study, but they are highly proficient in grammar. Guinea pigs and mice, when one lowers the frequency of their squeals and squeaks, are actually reciting the poetry of Fernando Pessoa. Even in the face of animals’ natural limitations in relation to language comprehension, breakthroughs are not impossible. For example: after a period of seven-months of instruction, my St. Bernard/Pekinese mix, Hugo, had the confidence and ability to use basic English conversation skills to pick up my medication from the drugstore.

Still, birds remain a highly neglected animal population of potential English students, despite demonstrations of high capability in language comprehension (e.g. parrots). Many people either don’t know or don’t want to know they have a goldmine sitting in a cage in the corner of their living room. Nick, you may say, people are ready for this and you’re not giving them enough credit. Well, try this on for size, Tinkerbell: when I offered an ESL class for birds at my local YMCA, I was not only refused, but threatened with legal action when I attempted to teach the simple present tense to sparrows singing on the top branch of an oak tree outside the YMCA building.

For those more open-minded to this ground-breaking instruction, I have created a course with them in mind. After over 1200 hours of working with birds, I have made a considerable amount of progress with my innovative teaching techniques and I’d like to share some of them with you. These are simple lesson plans anyone can use to teach the birds closest to them to speak English.

The most important part of the language education process is the initial introduction. It has to be full immersion. In my South Korean classroom, the students could only speak English during the instructional period or face the swift strike of a 24-inch ruler. I further enforced this ruler by talking loudly in English the entirety of the class. Some students complained at first, but my voluminous English capabilities finally broke them. Later, I learned they spoke English incessantly after my instruction, even when they were not in class. Eventually, they forgot most of their native tongue as it was replaced with English grammar and vocabulary. This, in effect, required their families to learn English in order to communicate with them. A domino effect like this is a dream to a teacher and encouraged many of my fellow instructors to apply my ideas.

I applied a similar technique to birds by locking them in a small sensory depravation chamber, much like the one I endured during my time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. There was a small hole for water and a small hole for food…it was terrible…I don’t want to talk about it…

I would start by breaking the students of their birdly babble through a Pavlovian-inspired technique (I took a psychology class in college, which is how I know who Pavlov is – I also know who B.F. Skinner and Sigmund Freud are). I would not feed the student for a whole day, then tease it with a palm of bird seed. At the same time, I would implore it to say, ‘I want the food.’ Survival phrases, I’ve always felt, are the easiest to learn because if we don’t use them, then we will die.

For those looking to be ESL teachers in this highly experimental field, patience is a necessity. My progress with the first set of students was very slow and most of the conversations followed this excruciatingly pedantic structure:

ME: Say, ‘I want the food.’
STUDENT: Squawk!
ME: Say, ‘I want the food.’
STUDENT: Squawk!
ME: No! Wrong, bird! I’m going to eat all your food!

And I did exactly that. The student saw me eat the food, which I did smugly in order to enforce the severity of the consequences for an incorrect response – another technique learned from my Vietnamese captors. This is a ruthless but successful pedagogy (this word means ‘teaching’ for those who did not take an education class in college as I did).

Also, the process will be slow. Don’t expect to make great leaps and bounds. Everything is gradual; it’s all baby steps and you have to be okay with that. After the fourth week of ESL instruction, my students had made small but important progress:

ME: Say, ‘I want the food.’
STUDENT: Squawk!
ME: Say, ‘I want the food.’
STUDENT: Could you please give me some food, sir?
ME: No! We are not working on modals! I’m eating your food!

Now, not all aspects of this process need be done in exactitude (this is a real word, look it up – I did). Following this model 100% of the time is not feasible as one becomes sick from eating copious amounts of bird seed. Therefore, another form of this is possible: instead of eating the seeds, throw them on the floor and stomp on them. Done enough, this will incite the student into a state of rage…

…and rage is the best motivation to survive captivity in Vietnam, or teach English.

This is an introduction, so I don’t want to hit you with too much too fast; however, let me say that I have taught over 100 birds to simple English conversation skills through this method. Often, the birds have completely forgotten the incomprehensible squeaks, squawks and whistles of their animal babble and have been ostracized by their own species. This only brings them back to me for further instruction. You see, in a multicultural world, where people often speak whatever language they want to, isolation is a valuable tool in the quest to teach them English.

It works with people and it works with birds.


Nick Hilbourn was born just after the industrial revolution and just before the technological revolution, which makes him a Virgo.  He enjoys writing YouTube comments which mention belt buckles and newly invented colors.  His most recent ventures were a blog about angry people entitled, “That’s ENOUGH Sourpuss” and a pop culture blog entitled, “ERGO”.  He currently lives out of the back of his car. Also, why not visit his blog?

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