Language - And the Continuum of Animal Communication

Updated: Jul 28, 2020

Breath is a form of communication for animals -- who understand much about our health, our mood, and our nature by attending to our breath

All animals communicate -- in a variety of ways -- bees' waggle dances communicate where the good food is, prairie dogs describe human predators by what they're wearing, crows remember and tell other crows which humans tried to trap them, Koko "signs" her emotions about the past, present, and future, dolphins communicate endless social details. But should we call these impressive communication systems language?

And what can we learn from the experiments in teaching some animals various forms of human language? What have we learned from these experiments? Are there better ways to move forward in the future that combines the natural ways that animals communicate -- with our own ability to understand their thoughts, feelings, and desires?

Several species such as Orangutans, Bonobos and chimps, wolves, elephants, etc., will evaluate a situation and make a judgment about the best action before attempting it.

This implies they have a sense of what worked before, what the consequences might be of a specific action.

We have seen Alex, the African Gray Parrot, count as Frans De Waal discusses in his book Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are. Griffin a younger parrot, (named after the brilliant animal researcher Donald Griffin), was in the same room as Alex during a training session. "In order to see if Griffin could pair quantities with sounds, they would click twice, to which the right answer would be "two." But when Griffin failed to answer, he was given two more clicks, Alex, from across the room, chimed in with "four." And after two more clicks, Alex said "six," while Griffin remained mute.

Alex with Dr. Irene Pepperberg - who bravely ventured into avian cognition studies

As "human-child like" as giving the right answer in class when another child is silent, I think it is also important to consider why Griffin remained mute, as he certainly knew at least the first answer. Alex would often go on strike some days and refuse to work, other days, he would work for eight hours as requested. Many of the experimental environments for animals in language learning programs do not sufficiently meet the needs of animals in terms of mental, physical, and same-species social variety. Frankly they get bored with rote learning, just as human children do. One dolphin trainer I knew in Hawaii told me that sometimes the dolphins would suddenly go on strike, refusing to do simple tasks, then when the researchers would give up and turn their backs, when they looked at the video recording later, they saw the dolphins doing the requested tasks, and having a laugh about it too!

Washoe, the Chimp who started it all

And Koko, the gorilla who was taught American Sign Language and had the vocabulary of a three-year-old human child, would be seen signing to herself, signing to the other gorillas, remembering past events and her emotions about them, expressing her desires and anticipation about future events. She was known to spontaneously invent words by combining signs just as "white" and "tiger" for the first time she saw a zebra. Washoe, the chimpanzee pioneer of the whole teaching-language to animals, field, labeled a swan a "water bird." And Alex, who knew the words "bread" and "sweet" called his birthday cake "sweet-bread."

Da Waal recounts another story about Alex using language in a way that suggested he could make sense of new situations and could translate them into new contexts. When his main trainer and researcher Irene Pepperberg "was fuming about a meeting in her department and walked into the lab with angry steps, Alex told her "calm down!" No doubt the same expression had been aimed at Alex's own excitable self."

Frans De Waal, whose research has produced such game-changing understanding of empathy, a sense of fairness, reconciliation and other high-level emotions in the animals he has studied, draws the line at saying that animals have language. He believes that language is a human phenomenon.

But perhaps the handful of special animals who've had language training, challenge us to expand our idea of animal cognition -- such as Koko, Chaser (the dog who knows a thousands words), Chimps Washoe and Nim, Kanzi (the bonobo who understands human conversations at the level of a three-year-old child), Aymu, a chimp in Japan, who outperforms humans on some memory tests on a computer.

The level of venom that some scientists have responded to these animal language studies is shocking. In 1980, a group fought to make further animal-language training illegal. It seems that the idea of animal language learning is inherently threatening to their status quo, and they turn into rather vicious predators. This was true when Jane Goodall was attacked for daring to call her chimps "he" or "she" instead of "it." It was true when chimp Nim was criticized for being a boring conversationalist because he often talked about what he wanted (yet he was trained with treat rewards for learning signs). Or when people doubted that Koko was truly grieving when she lost her kitten, or when told that her friend, Robin Williams had died.

Instead of calling Clever Hans (the horse that seemed to be able to count, by stomping his hoof to the correct number) a fraud -- we should call him a genius for being able to accurately read the subtle body language of his handlers, which accurately gave him the cue of when to stop tapping. This is a level of social intelligence that far exceeds the ability to count.

Project Nim - a chimp raised as a human child

The work with Nim Chimpsky (named after the linguist Noam Chomsky), was savagely attacked and belittled, and Washoe and Nim were just about discarded after they "failed" to produce the results hoped for. Instead, perhaps we should view these experiments in a more ethical context -- when you put an animal in a human environment, you are going to get a mix of good and bad results. We need to find more accurate, ethical, and productive methods to study communication in the animal world, without simply relying on imposing our own standards of what language learning should look and sound like.

Frans De Waal seeks to tease apart the fascination with language and thinking. He doesn't believe that language and cognition are the same, or that one is required for the other. You don't need language to think. He thus doesn't feel the need to use language as the proof of cognition, although he recognizes that the work with language learning has taught us so much about the levels or continuum of cognition in animals. As he says of his lack of desire to use words to communicate with animals: "Oddly enough, this particular desire must have passed me by, because I never felt it." He notes that "People lie all the time...I am in fact relieved to work with subjects that don't talk. I don't need to worry about the truth of their utterances. Instead of asking how often they engage in sex, I just count the occasions. I am perfectly happy being an animal watcher."

De Waal also acknowledges that sometimes in the lab, his chimps seem to look right through him. Perhaps they are thinking about him, just as he thinks about them.

What if in addition to trying to impose our methods of communication, we also sought to learn on their terms? What would they like to say to us?

The video below explores a possible definition of language and explores whether or not animals could be said to learn language (by our human definition.) But then the question is if animals were to apply THEIR method of communicating to evaluating our abilities, they would correctly assume humans can't communicate. And then again, maybe they are right about that :) considering how often we misunderstand each other.

Does The Question of Language Learning in Animals Matter?

If we go back a hundred years, scientists were operating on awake dogs without anesthesia, because they claimed they did not feel pain and did not suffer. Cruel and scientifically unnecessary animal experiments are still being performed on 68,000 animals a year in the US. And there was a time when language was used as a main "separator" or dividing line between humans and animals, allowing humans to justify their "superior" intelligence and position. So, these experiments with teaching animals various elements of language learning have opened our minds to their true desires, their capacity for learning and expressing themselves, and the richness of their inner worlds. They have literally paved the way for the revolution in animal cognition.

A Speech and Language Pathologist Teaches Her Dog to Communicate Words through Buttons.

Not only does she push the button for "outside" or "play" she also communicates with the button "happy" and "I love you."

Stella, an 18 month old dog, knows 29 words and puts together 3-5 words to communicate her thoughts, feelings and desires. It takes patience and persistence. And Christina Hunger began this training when Stella was eight weeks old. It starts with observing how your animal is actually communicating, and then connect this feeling or thought to a word.

Here is another dog, Gable, who knows the names of about 150 names of his toys after being taught by his owners. He can also figure out a new toy, if it isn't a name he has already learned.

So it seems animals can recognize words, names and actions with loving, positive training. However, I think we need to go further. I think we are just touching the surface of possibility, into understanding the true experience of the inner lives and intelligence, the levels of communication among animals. This will require that we enter their world, or at least not impose our own onto them. In addition to teaching them our ways, we need to observe, understand, and respect the natural ways that they communicate. And perhaps animals will help us to become better communicators and citizens in our own world.

Genie Joseph, PhD

Director: The Human-Animal Connection

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