Animals and Language Learning

Updated: Jul 28, 2020

Alex and Dr. Irene Pepperberg Communicating

Language Learning and Animals

Important contributions to the field of animal language learning and intelligence have come from the (so-called) “bird brain.” We might have to start using that term as a compliment, thanks to the achievements of Alex, an African Gray parrot who learned to speak about 150 words. Alex and his owner/researcher, Dr. Irene Pepperberg, were the subject of a PBS Nova documentary.

Dr. Pepperberg used an innovative training approach called the “rival/model” method in which the parrot watches her and another person do the tasks, name the objects, do simple number games, etc. Through watching, imitating, and competing for attention and desired objects or treats, Alex was motivated to learn. Even with a brain the size of a shelled walnut, Alex tested in some cognitive processing functions at the level of a five-year-old human child. He was able to tell shape, color, size (bigger or smaller), count to eight, identify textures, and recognize spatial relationships.

Alex could ask questions like “What is it?’ when presented with something new, and could combine concepts. For example, when presented with his first birthday cake, he knew the word for bread, but not cake. After tasting it, he called it “yummy bread.”

When he would ask for a banana, and the researcher would give him a grape, he would spit it back out and give them “the look” of annoyance.

He could also verbally express the emotional states of frustration or boredom. While Alex had a disciplined research/study day of 8-12 hours, some days he just didn’t want to work, and would refuse to cooperate, giving his owner, Dr. Irene Pepperberg “the look.” Everyone in the lab knew what that meant.

At the end of each training day, Alex and Dr. Pepperberg had a parting ritual. They would say goodnight, Alex would then say, “I love you.” When Dr. Pepperberg answered, “I love you. Be good!” Alex would answer, “You be good, too.”

As fascinating as Alex’s language usage was, Dr. Pepperberg began to notice something even more intriguing. Alex seemed to “know” things he couldn’t know by normal learning methods. For example, she had been thinking about getting a new car but hadn't said this out loud. One day she was reading a magazine across the room, with the contents of the pages hidden from his view. She saw an ad for a nice car and admired it silently to herself. At that moment, Alex said, “Nice car.”

Another time she had the television on, away from his line of sight. A couple was dancing together, and in her mind, she admired how the couple was moving. Alex said, “They’re dancing.” These are just a couple of examples of how, as a culture, we may have underestimated the sophisticated social, emotional intelligence, and communication potential of animals, even beyond their ability to learn words.

A Conversation with Koko

Koko the Gorilla signs "Love."

Animal lovers are familiar with the story of Koko, the gorilla who was taught American Sign Language and had the ability to communicate at about the level of a three-year-old child. She loved to paint, had her favorite movies to watch, and loved to play. She had a strong sense of self, and described herself as "A very fine Gorilla animal." She could often be seen signing to herself when no one was around to talk to.

She could express strong desires, emotional states, and had memory. One of her gorilla mates was able to tell the story of how his parents were killed by poachers. Koko recently passed away, but one of my favorite stories was when she was young and Penny, her trainer, had to go away on a two-week trip. Penny knew that Koko understood the meaning of "one week" but didn't think she could understand the concept of two weeks. So before Penny left, she told Koko, "I'll be back in a week." When Penny returned, Koko had pulled out her sink. When she asked Penny if she did it, Koko signed "No." Penny repeated her question, and Koko said signed "no." Then Penny said, "You lied to me." And Koko responded, "You lied to me first."

Washoe - The First Chimp to be Taught Sign Language

Washoe was raised in an environment as close as possible to that of a human child, in an attempt to satisfy her psychological need for companionship.

Washoe learned 350 words with Allen and Beatrix Gardner and later continued learning with Roger Fouts.

While with Washoe, the Gardners and Fouts made a choice not to use human language, but to only communicate in ASL with Washoe. They did this based on the assumption that this would create a less confusing learning environment for Washoe. This technique is commonly used when teaching human children how to sign.

"After the first couple of years of the language project, we discovered that Washoe could pick up ASL gestures without direct instruction. By simply observing humans around her who were signing amongst themselves, she could learn these signs. For example, the scientists signed "Toothbrush" to each other while they brushed their teeth near her. At the time of observation, Washoe showed no signs of having learned the sign, but on a later occasion she reacted to the sight of a toothbrush by spontaneously producing the correct sign, thereby showing that she had previously learned the ASL sign."

(Gardner: The Structure of Learning from Sign Stimuli to Sign Language).

Project Nim - A Chimp Raised as a Child

It was the 1970's, and idealistic notions about how humans and animals could connect abounded. In the case of Nim, a baby chimpanzee was raised in a human family. Nim learned to sign and communicate and express his wishes. All went well for the first couple of years until Nim reached adolescence, and as with some human adolescents, things went haywire. The documentary "Project Nim" gives a brutally honest look at what was learned as well as how it didn't end well.

A Bonobo Named Kanzi - who can follow complex instructions in English

Dr. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh talks to Kanzi in English, and Kanzi responds at the level of a young child. She knows several thousand words and can identify picture symbols on a computer, including adjectives, verbs, wishes, and moods. It would take a human a few years to memorize and correctly identify all these symbols that Kanzi knows. The above video shows them at the Language Research Center where Sue and Kanzi prepare meals together and Kanzi follows complex instructions, and cooperates with Sue's requests.

Chaser - The Dog that Knows Over 1,000 words

Chaser is a border Collie who started language learning at eight weeks by her owner Dr. John Pilley. He uses fun and play as the primary motivator. She knows not only single words but sequences of words. She understands what nouns and verbs mean. To put it in context, the average two-year-old child knows about 50 words. Chaser responds to specific commands such as “fetch yellow monkey,” or “paw blue ball,” or “find squeaky bear,” and the capacity of Chaser’s memory for the names of hundreds of toys has made a strong impression on researchers.

Tigers Have their Own Unique Language

It is important to recognize that animals have their own sophisticated methods of communicating, and we should not just impose or assume that animals should communicate in our terms.

The Secret Language of Elephants - Cornell is creating an "Elephant Dictionary."

Many of the sounds elephants make are below what humans can hear, but elephants use these low-frequencies that can travel more than a mile away. This is one way they communicate with each other across long distances.

Genie Joseph, PhD

Director: The Human-Animal Connection


Recent Posts

See All

Make a donation

Please consider making a donation to support our work. The Human-Animal Connection is a non-profit 501c3 organization. All donations are tax deductible.