Maybe you’ve heard of animals that use movements, sounds and even smells to communicate with their herd or group: whales that “sing”, skunks that use their secretions to repel predators, bees that “dance” when they find nectar, or birds that create elaborated songs in an effort to mate. Animals use these signals to send messages to others, to communicate.
But communication is one thing. Language is another.
There’s been a lot of debate about whether animals are able to develop language skills. Specialists that have studied this topic for years have different approaches and findings, but none of them are definitive. However, their discoveries are almost unbelievable.
Have you heard the story of Koko, the gorilla who learned to communicate through sign language? Or Kanzi, the bonobo who communicates with his human “colleagues” through symbols (lexigrams) drawn on a board? Or the story of Alex, the African gray parrot, who learned to count or say what matter objects were made of?
The stories of these animals with extraordinary language skills stir controversy, because these exceptional creatures are (or were, in Alex’s case) not only capable to learn lots of words and their meanings, but also to associate one concept with another, in order to form a new word or a new sentence. And even though these new concepts or sentences are primitive, it’s no less of a surprise to witness the thought process these animals are capable of doing with the help of their researchers.
For example, when Alex the parrot was presented with birthday cake for the first time, he didn’t know the word to describe it. But, that didn’t stop him from speaking his mind. He decided to combine two words that he knew, “bread” and “yummy”, and called the birthday cake “yummy bread. When Alex combined the these two words by himself, he clearly wasn’t just reproducing human sounds as parrots normally do, but actually manipulating two different meanings, to form a new one that represented what he was thinking. He invented a new concept.
Koko the gorilla is also capable of making up new words to demonstrate her thoughts. Reportedly, she didn’t know the word “ring”, so she combined the words “finger” and “bracelet”, and called a ring a “finger-bracelet”.
These animals also demonstrated their cognitive abilities when they showed they understood abstract concepts, such as “good” or “bad” in Kanzi´s case, or the concepts of “same”, “different”, and the idea of which number was bigger than the other, that Alex knew. Although they can be represented and explained using tangible objects, these are all abstract notions, which imply certain level of rationalization to understand.
It’s also surprising that these 3 animals in particular were able to follow directions, at the same level as a 3, 4 or 5 year old human child. For example, Kanzi is able to “put the onions in the hot bowl (pot) and stir them”, “open the faucet and wash a potato” and “get the ball that is outdoors”. Alex was able to understand that, even though it was time for him to have dinner, he and his researcher had to do “one last chore”.
And even more puzzling, when we think that Kanzi, Alex and Koko learned to communicate in English, their trainer’s language. But what if animals had the ability to learn additional languages? Will we have bilingual parrots, gorillas and bonobos in the future?
It seems language is not only inherent to humans
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines language as:
any one of the systems of human language that are used and understood by a particular group of people
This definition has two components that exclude all animals: human and people
But look at this other definition of language:
the ability to put meaningless sounds together, to communicate complex ideas with one another.
It’s undeniable that humans are more superior to any other species in our complex way of using language, understanding syntax and following grammatical rules. Language definitely sets us apart from other animals.
However, some species come in a close second.
Take for example, a group of bottlenose dolphins at the Dolphin Institute in Hawaii, which learned to understand the message their researchers gave them, both semantically (meaning) and syntactically (the use of words in a specific order).
Or the way in which the chestnut-crowned babbler communicates. These small Australian birds are able to take meaningless sounds (at least meaningless to us), and rearrange them to form different messages in their calls.
Doesn’t this sound like the second definition of language to you?
If language refers to the ability to rearrange individual sounds or signs to create new meanings and original ideas, it seems that’s exactly what Kanzi and Alex accomplished.
What about man’s best friend?
Dogs may not be able to create new meanings from separate concepts, or understand abstract ideas, but they compensate this lack of linguistic skills with other talents.
Dogs are said to learn and understand the meaning of around 165 words, which is the vocabulary of a typical toddler. However, dogs are able to read our gestures and tone of voice, and that gives them helpful information about what we’re telling them.
So far, dogs are only able to understand our words, not yet to produce new concepts, or answer questions like the other animals we mentioned. Still, we’re capable to understand what Fido is telling us in its own way, thanks to thousands of years of friendship and mutual help.
There’s still a lot to be discovered about animal language and their ability to communicate with humans. And although neither Alex, Koko nor Kanzi show(ed) signs of knowing how to use grammar or syntax, two key components of language, we can’t help but wonder if these three creatures represent just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to animal language.