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Do animals have language? - Michele Bishop


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All animals communicate. But do they have language? Michele Bishop details the four specific qualities we associate with language and investigates whether or not certain animals utilize some or all of those qualities to communicate.

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There has long been an idea that humans stand alone in this unique communication we call language. In other words, our grammatical capabilities (knowing how to order the parts of our communication), our ability to talk about abstract concepts, and to create new words and communicate new ideas separate us from the rest of the animal kingdom.

But, as researchers study the communication systems of other very social animals more similarities have been discovered. When you go straight to those researchers, they claim that animals are doing way more in their communication than we ever imagined and they are asking us to re-evaluate our ideas about the nature of language.

For example, Dr. Savage-Rumbaugh, a primatologist, claims that nonhuman primates (bonobos) understand spoken language and can execute tasks thought limited to only humans (such as manipulating fire, playing the piano, drawing, and driving golf carts).

Dr. Con Slobodchikoff, a biologist and professor, started studying prairie dogs decades ago and found they were talking about much more than just who or what was trying to eat them. He and his fellow researchers had dogs of different colors and humans wearing different color clothes walk past the colony. The alarm calls indicated the predator's size, shape, speed, and even, for human predators, what the person was wearing and if the person was carrying a gun.

Denise Herzig, a marine mammal behavioral biologist, has spent almost 30 years studying dolphins in the wild. She claims dolphins do have a complex communication system but we humans are lacking the 'Rosetta Stone' to understand what they are saying. Research indicates dolphins use whistles to identify age, location, names, and gender. They can also understand some grammar in a gestural language researchers used to communicate with them.

While these communication systems may have some of the qualities of language, many language experts believe animals fall far short of the kind of language feats that humans have accomplished. This NY Times article debates the question of whether or not the bonobos in Dr. Savage-Rumbaugh's research were actually using language.

The article argues that humans are unintentionally influencing these animals, a kind of 'Clever Hans' effect. Another point is that language capabilities are hardwired in humans and not in other animals. Dr. Noam Chomsky, one of the most important linguists of our time, is known for his theory that language is innate to humans and, therefore, trying to teach animals to use language is irrational.

Most linguists argue that our brains developed special wiring needed for language after our human ancestors split from those of the apes millions of years ago. The proof, according to these scientists, lies in the fact that very young children can easily construct a grammatically correct sentence with no input beyond hearing language used around them.

It is a common understanding that human language stands alone due to the powerful combination of grammar and productivity. The human brain can take a finite number of elements and create an infinite number of messages. We can craft and understand complex sentences, as well as utterances that have never been spoken before. We can use language to communicate about an endless range of subjects, talk about imaginary things, and even to lie. We do not see these capabilities in other animals.

Research continues to reveal more and more about animal communication and viewpoints may shift and evolve as our understanding grows. It may turn out that human language and animal communication aren't entirely different, but exist on a continuum. After all, we are all animals.

For more on animal language, watch this TED-Ed Lesson: How to speak monkey: The language of cotton-top tamarins.

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Meet The Creators

  • Educator Dr. Michele Bishop
  • Director Avi Ofer
  • Script Editor Eleanor Nelsen
  • Sound Designer Cem Misirlioglu
  • Narrator Addison Anderson

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