Is Language Unique to Humans?
One of the many things that sets humans apart from our nearest animal cousins is the ability to construct and use languages. However, certain animals can learn or mimic actions we would see as language skills, so, in this article, we will be looking to what extent animals can use what we would understand languages and trying to answer the question, Is language unique to humans?
Animals That Can Talk
There has a wide range of documented cases of animals apparently learning human speech, with some of the best examples being:
- Alex the African Grey Parrot. Over the course of thirty years of work between psychologist Irene Pepperberg and Alex, purchased from a Chicago pet store at one year of age, the parrot amassed a vocabulary of some 150 words.
According to one report, he was able to recognize fifty different objects, could count quantities up to six, and could distinguish among seven colors and five shapes. He also understood the ideas of “bigger” and “smaller”, and “same” and “different”.
- Kanzi, a 31-year-old male bonobo who lives in a small social group with others of his species at the Great Ape Trust in Des Moines, Iowa. Bonobos, together with chimpanzees, are our closest living relatives.
After years of working with primatologist Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, Kanzi can now understand several thousand words, and can communicate using a kind of keyboard that contains around 400 visual symbols called lexigrams.
- Rico, a border collie who knows the labels of around 200 different items, and can retrieve them on command. Compared to Alex and Kanzi, this might not seem particularly impressive or interesting.
However, Rico can learn the label of an item that he’s never seen before after only hearing the word once. If there are 20 items in front of him, 19 of which he already knows the labels for, and he is instructed to retrieve an item using a word he had never heard before, Rico can infer that the unfamiliar item matches with the unfamiliar word.
- Atlantic bottlenose dolphins Akeakamai and Phoenix, who lived at the Kewalo Basin Marine Mammal Laboratory in Honolulu, Hawaii. The researchers gave the dolphins instructions constructed entirely of familiar words, but in various combinations that would only be understood by knowing the grammar of the sentences, not just the vocabulary.
For example, “Phoenix Akeakamai Over” was an instruction for Phoenix to swim to Akeakamai and jump over her, while “Akeakamai Surfboard Fetch Speaker” instructed Akeakamai to get the surfboard and bring it to the speaker. In each case the dolphin had to interpret the verb “over” or “fetch” according to the noun: did “fetch” apply to the surfboard or to the speaker, for instance?
While these examples might seem like evidence that animals can, in fact, be taught to speak, human language is far more than just a series of short sentences or simple meanings. In many ways, a reasonable description of language would be the ability to take a finite set of elements, such as words, and using a set of rules, in this case, grammar and syntax, to create infinite combinations, each of which is comprehensible.
While animals are able to communicate with each other in a simplistic manner and learn slightly higher forms of communication, normally via repetition and mimicry, from humans, they lack the tool kit to create these infinite variations of comprehensible communication.
While animals can certainly communicate with us, and we wish them, the concept of language remains a uniquely human attribute.
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Fernando Herbert, B.A.
Spanish Language Consultant