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Contrasting Human Language With Animal Communication

Human language differs from animal communication in many ways. While humans use language to produce an infinite number of unique sentences as a form of communication, animals lack this ability. Animals communicate by signal codes, which means they have a limited number of statements, generally as simple responses to certain situations. As one researcher says, the natural sounds and gestures produced by all nonhuman primates show their signals to be highly stereotyped and limited in the type and number of messages they convey. Human language, on the other hand, is a true language a system of arbitrary signs which allows us to convey unlimited interactions. For one, human language differs because it has form and meaning, which means it has a structure which combines sounds, gestures, letters, and written words which when put together have a certain significance or meaning. Secondly, human language differs because it is creative, meaning that we can (with language) produce (and understand) an infinite number of new sentences which have never before been spoken; we can lie and joke and even talk about things that dont make any sense. Thirdly, human language differs because it has displacement, which basically means that we as humans can talk about things in the past and future, and things that are either right in front of us or miles away. While some animals, like bees, have shown signs of limited displacement, and while certain apes have been able to acquire a number of sign language messages, animal communication is restricted to very simple messages like look out or danger! Animals cannot say look out, I saw a snake in that tree yesterday or make jokes, lie, and talk about the imaginary (which linguists refer to as the ability to use tropes). Many researches have tried to teach primates language, and while some chimps and apes have been more successful than others in language acquisition, the end result has always shown that primates can only learn language to a certain extent, and usually only things related to stimulus-controlled phenomena like eating and drinking. Language was only rarely spontaneous with these animals, they usually displayed redundancy and imitation, and no research shows them to have the same ability of language learning like a human child. Gua was a chimp in the 1930s that was raised as a child along with the researchers own baby son. Gua understood more words than the human boy at sixteen months, but never learned any more than that, while the boy of course did. Among other things, primates have a different vocal apparatus than ours which prevents them from producing

spoken language. Research has simply shown that primates are not capable of learning human language. Non-primates have shown an even lesser chance of acquiring human language. Dolphins have shown the ability to understand and act on certain commands, but they have not displayed understanding for novel utterances, metaphors, jokes, and lies. Not to mention the fact that producing spoken human language is simply impossible for these animals. Like other animals, dolphins also have a limited number of messages which they produce amongst each other. Dolphins, as well as apes and other animals have no way of communicating about the past, expressing their feelings, lying to each other, and among other things, talking smack about their enemies. Human language, however, differs because it gives us the ability to do all of those things and more.

Comparison of Human Language and Animal Communication Similarity: Both are composed of SIGNS (forms with meaning) Six Key Differences: 1. Animal: The signs of animal systems are inborn. Human: The capacity to be creative with signs is inborn, but the signs (words) themselves are acquired culturally. --------------------------------------------------------------------2. Animal: Communication is set responses to stimuli (indexes). Human: Not limited to use as an index. --------------------------------------------------------------------3. Animal: Each sign has one and only one function; each meaning can be expressed only in one way Human: Signs often have multiple functions; one meaning can be expresses in many ways --------------------------------------------------------------------4. Animal: Not naturally used in novel way Human: Creative, can be adapted to new situations --------------------------------------------------------------------5. Animal: Closed inventory of signs; only a set number of different messages can be sent Human: Open ended. Grammar (rules of syntax) allows a virtually unlimited number of messages to be constructed --------------------------------------------------------------------6. Animal: Change extremely slowly, with the speed of genetic evolution.

Human: Change rapidly as a cultural phenomenon.


Robert Mannell (1999) The aim of this lecture (1) is to examine the following questions:1. How do the forms of communication used by animals differ from human language? 2. Can animals be taught to use languages that are analogous to or the same as human language?

Natural Animal Communication

Pearce (1987, p252) cites a definition of animal communication by Slater (1983, see Pearce for reference), which we will also use as a working definition in this lecture:Animal communication is "the transmission of a signal from one animal to another such that the sender benefits, on average, from the response of the recipient". This loose definition permits the inclusion of many types of behaviour and allows "communication" to be applied to a very large range of animals, including some very simple animals. Natural animal communication can include:

Chemical signals (used by some very simple creatures, including protozoa) Smell (related to chemical signals, eg. pheromones attract, skunk secretions repel) Touch Movement Posture (eg. dogs, geese) Facial gestures (eg. dogs snarling) Visual signals (eg. feathers) Sound (eg. very many vertebrate and invertebrate calls)

Such signals have evolved to:

attract (especially mates) repel (especially competitors or enemies) signal aggression or submission advertise species warn of predators communicate about the environment or the availability of food

Such signals may be:

instinctive, that is genetically programmed learnt from others

Some linguists (eg Chomsky, 1957, Macphail, 1982, both cited in Pearce, 1987) have argued that language is a unique human behaviour and that animal communication falls short of human language in a number of important ways. Chomsky (1957) claims that humans possess an innate universal grammar that is not possessed by other species. This can be readily demonstrated, he claims, by the universality of language in human society and by the similarity of their grammars. No natural non-human system of communication shares this common grammar. Macphail (1982, cited by Pearce, 1987) made the claim that "humans acquire language (and nonhumans do not) not because humans are (quantitatively) more intelligent, but because humans possess some species-specific mechanism (or mechanisms) which is a prerequisite of languageacquisition". Some researchers have provided lists of what they consider to be the criteria that animal communication must meet to be regarded as language. For this lecture the list devised by Hockett (1960) is utilised, although this list is not the only such list available. Such lists tend to be quite similar and certain elements of the Hockett list are considered particularly important in evaluating the question "can animals be taught language?" Hockett's thirteen "design-features" for language are as follows:1. Vocal-auditory channel: sounds emitted from the mouth and perceived by the auditory system. This applies to many animal communication systems, but there are many exceptions. Also, it does not apply to human sign language, which meets all the other 12 requirements. It also does not apply to written language. 2. Broadcast transmission and directional reception: this requires that the recipient can tell the direction that the signal comes from and thus the originator of the signal. 3. Rapid fading (transitory nature): Signal lasts a short time. This is true of all systems involving sound. It doesn't take into account audio recording technology and is also not true for written language. It tends not to apply to animal signals involving chemicals and smells which often fade slowly. 4. Interchangeability: All utterances that are understood can be produced. This is different to some communication systems where, for example, males produce one set of behaviours and females another and they are unable to interchange these messages so that males use the female signal and vice versa. 5. Total feedback: The sender of a message also perceives the message. That is, you hear what you say. This is not always true for some kinds of animal displays. 6. Specialisation: The signal produced is specialised for communication and is not the side effect of some other behaviour (eg. the panting of a dog incidentally produces the panting sound). 7. Semanticity: There is a fixed relationship between a signal and a meaning.

8. Arbitrariness: There is an arbitrary relationship between a signal and its meaning. That is, the signal, is related to the meaning by convention or by instinct but has no inherent relationship with the meaning. This can be seen in different words in different languages referring to the same meaning, or to different calls of different sub-species of a single bird species having the same meaning. 9. Discreteness: Language can be said to be built up from discrete units (eg. phonemes in human language). Exchanging such discrete units causes a change in the meaning of a signal. This is an abrupt change, rather than a continuous change of meaning (eg. "cat" doesn't gradually change in meaning to "bat", but changes abruptly in meaning at some point. Speech loudness and pitch can, on the other hand be changed continuously without abrupt changes of meaning. 10. Displacement: Communicating about things or events that are distant in time or space. Bee dancing is an example of this. 11. Productivity: Language is an open system. We can potentially produce an infinite (2) number of different messages by combining the elements differently. This is not a feature of, for example, the calls of gibbons who have a finite number of calls and thus a closed system of communication. 12. Traditional transmission: Each generation needs to learn the system of communication from the preceding generation. Many species produce the same uniform calls regardless of where they live in the range (even a range spanning several continents). Such systems can be assumed to be defined by instinct and thus by genetics. Some animals, on the other hand fail to develop the calls of their species when raised in isolation. 13. Duality of patterning: Large numbers of meaningful signals (eg. morphemes or words) produced from a small number of meaningless units (eg. phonemes). Human language is very unusual in this respect. Apes, for example, do not share this feature in their natural communication systems. Click here to see a table that examines the extent to which various communication systems meet these 13 design features.

Teaching Language to Apes (and other animals)

It seems well established that no animal communication system fulfils all of the criteria outlined by Hockett (1960). This is certainly true for the apes. It is also true for most other species such as parrots and may also be true for animals such as dolphins, who have a complex communication system which involves a complex combination of various sounds.

Why try to teach a human-like language to another species?

Just because a species doesn't have such a communication system in the wild doesn't necessarily prove that they are incapable of using one.

What kind of language should we teach these animals?

We must avoid using features of human language that are physiologically difficult or impossible for the animal to manage. For example, spoken human language is extremely difficult or impossible for most animals because of the structure of their vocal organs. Apes, for example, can't produce a large proportion of the vowels and would have difficulty with some of the consonants. This may be due not only to the shapes of the vocal organs but also to the limitations of the motor centres in the brain that control these organs. We might attempt, on the other hand, to teach apes language that involves them using their hands (eg. sign language or the manipulation of symbols). Some birds, such as certain parrots and the Indian Hill Mynah, are able to mimic human speech with great clarity. We could, therefore, attempt to teach such animals spoken human language. Dolphins cannot be taught either type of language but may be able to understand sounds or gestures and to respond by pressing specially designed levers.

What do we test for?

Animal communication systems generally lack one or (usually) more of the following features:

Semanticity Arbitrariness Discreteness Displacement Productivity

Most researchers attempting to teach language to animals are attempting to test for the existence of these features in the "language" use of their subjects.

Projects with Apes

The ape species include gorilla, chimpanzee, bonobo (a distinct species of chimpanzee) and the orangutan. Apart from some very early attempts to teach spoken language to chimpanzees (generally resulting in the production of no more than 3-4 words) language production training has involved the use of the hands, either through the manipulation of symbols or through the use of sign language. Comprehension training has involved these types of language as well as training in the comprehension of spoken language. Here are some of the most important studies on apes and language:

Gardner and Gardner (1969) Chimpanzee (Washoe) American sign language

Patterson (1978) Gorilla (Koko) Sign language Premack and Premack (1972) Chimpanzee (Sarah and others) Plastic symbols Terrace et al (1979) Chimpanzee (Nim Chimpsky) Symbols Rumbaugh and Savage-Rumbaugh Chimpanzee (Sherman and Austin) Symbols on a keyboard Savage-Rumbaugh Bonobo Chimpanzee (Kanzi, Panbanisha) Understanding spoken language Symbols on a keyboard

There are some web pages that you might wish to look at. They describe the work of Sue Savage-Rumbaugh and colleagues. They include:

Great Ape Trust, Iowa, USA A 1995 New York Times article entitled "Chimp Talk Debate: Is it really language?", by George Johnson A British newspaper report (July, 1999) describing the use of a speech synthesiser interfaced to the bonobos' keyboards.

Projects with Birds

Projects with birds usually involve parrots or the Indian Hill Mynah. These birds are selected for their ability to mimic human speech. The African Grey Parrot and the Indian Hill Mynah are generally considered to be the birds with the greatest ability to mimic human speech patterns but a number of other species (mainly parrots such as the budgerigar) can be trained to "speak".

Pepperberg African Grey Parrot (Alex) Spoken "language"

Here are a few web pages that discuss the work of Irene Pepperberg and colleagues with Alex the African Grey Parrot.

The Alex Foundation research page (links to various papers and a short movie) "Studies to determine the intelligence of African Grey Parrots", Irene Pepperberg, 1995

Projects with Cetaceans

Cetaceans, such as whales and dolphins, have been shown to be readily trainable to respond to gestures and sometimes to verbal and other acoustic commands. Also, many species have very complex acoustic communication systems. It has been hypothesised that it may be possible to train them to understand language encoded in either gestures or appropriate acoustic signals. Appropriate acoustic signals are assumed to be sounds that are similar to the natural communicative sounds that these animals produce. In the project listed below, one dolphin was trained on gestures and the other with sounds. (refer to chapter 8 of Pearce (1987) for a description of this project).

Herman, Richards and Wolz (1984) Dolphins (Akeakamai and Phoenix) Gestures (Akeakamai) Sounds (Phoenix)