Can animals learn language like humans do?

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Few things in life spark the imagination as much as the idea of ​​being able to converse with organisms of a different species. (Just look at Hugh Lofting, who wrote the beloved Doctor Dolittle books based on this premise.) We want to know if our pets think we are treating them well. We want to know if the zoo animals are happy with their captivity, or if they prefer to return to the wild. We want to ask the predator why they are hunting their prey and if they really feel sorry for doing so.

Unfortunately, anyone who has spent time with an animal will tell you that they are unresponsive. Of course, it may seem like your puppy understands you when you ask them to sit down and listen to you. However, this kind of understanding is simply Pavlovian; rather than getting the real meaning of your words, the puppy only knows that performing a specific action will allow him to receive a treat.

Yet every now and then an extraordinary creature arrives that can make us wonder if humans and animals are indeed incapable of communicating. Koko, a western lowland gorilla born at the San Francisco Zoo in 1971, comes to mind. Over the course of her life, Koko learned to use 1,000 different types of signs. These were based on human sign language but modified for the unique morphology of a gorilla.

The gorilla who knew sign language

It’s hard to tell if Koko used his 1,000 signs intelligently. The animal never used the correct syntax, and its ability to make itself understood to others was comparable to that of a human child. At the same time, several video recordings show Koko in conversation with his guardians, demonstrating familiarity with abstract concepts like the difference between “true” and “false”, or the death of her pet kitten, whom she named “All Ball”.

These accomplishments led Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute director Mary Lee Jensvold to exclaim that Koko used “language the same way people do”. At the same time, Koko’s use of language has been questioned by many experts. Graham Turner, professor of translation and interpretation at Heriot Watt University, concluded that sign language is too complex for other great apes to really master.

“Although monkeys can use two or three signs in a sequence,” Turner told the BBC in an interview published on the occasion of Koko’s death in 2018, “close inspection of the filmed data repeatedly showed trainers inducing them, then dubiously interpreting separate responses as signed sentences.” Turner’s point of view is compelling, especially considering that Koko’s main guardians have often acted as guardians of the scientific community.

Other details about Koko’s life also indicate that his use of language was, if not deceptive, at least human-induced. In 2005, three Gorilla Foundation employees filed a complaint claiming that Koko’s caregivers – under the guise of interpreting the animal’s signs – repeatedly asked them to flash their breasts. At the time, animal experts were quick to attest that gorillas weren’t known to attach themselves to nipples.

Language vs. Communication

The ambiguity surrounding Koko does not prove that animals are incapable of acquiring language. Instead, Koko’s story reminds us that we need to be careful about how we define “language” when working with animals. Time and time again, people who study animal behavior make the mistake of projecting themselves onto their subjects, using standards which, while they may seem universal to us, are in fact distinctly human.

If we define language simply as a medium through which to share information, then there are countless creatures that have demonstrated some level of skill. In 2013, researchers showed individual dolphins have “signature whistles” that are unique to them and work much like names do for us. Likewise, humpback whales and blue whales perform mating songs to attract females.

The ability to communicate specific information is not limited to mammals, but also extends to the realm of insects. Bees use what beekeepers call a “wriggling dance” share the location and distance of a food source with other bees. Other insect species like ants speak via pheromones, which they leave behind to help each other find their way to their respective colonies.

The more complex the social network an animal lives in, the more advanced that animal’s ability to communicate information tends to be. However, as a journalist points out in The Economist, “There is an important distinction between communication and language,” just as there is an important distinction between a human commenting on the state of the economy and an ant unintentionally leaving a trail of chemicals while walking along the forest floor. .

Learning voice production

Language – human language – is defined by its arbitrariness. While body language, another form of communication observed throughout the animal kingdom, is by definition related to the information conveyed, there is no inherent connection between the word “banana” and the object to which that word. is linked. So while body language can be expressed instinctively, verbal language must be learned.

True fluency in verbal language has not been observed in animals, although researchers have kept their eyes open for the next best thing: learning to voice production, or the practice of copying a sound from the environment and modify it to meet social or biological needs. The learning of voice production has been observed in a small number of animals, including songbirds, hummingbirds, parrots, bats, dolphins and elephants.

“Among these animals”, wrote Stéphanie King and Vincent Janik in a 2013 study, “Only parrots and dolphins” have been shown to be able to use arbitrary signals and learned to label objects in experimental studies. As a result, parrots and dolphins are not only at the forefront of studies that seek to understand the inner workings of labeling and naming within animal communities, but also the process of language acquisition in general. .

Many sci-fi movies – like the ones from 2016 Arrival – explored the hypothetical difficulty of communicating with aliens, and they provide an appropriate analogy for talking to animals. Regardless of the different levels of intelligence, it is highly unlikely that we will ever be able to achieve true understanding with our fellow animals. This is because the way a particular species communicates is not universal, but evolutionary and further modified by conspecific social interaction.


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