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How Human Language Is Different From Animal Communication

It is more factual and accurate to evaluate and admire an animal's intelligence by looking at its own innate biological abilities than by how much human language it can learn. In fact, the way humans and animals can bond and connect without language makes it all the more remarkable.

By
Syelle Graves, read by Mignon Fogarty,
April 27, 2017
Episode #566

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human language or animal communication

Language is one of the most remarkable characteristics that separates humans from other animals. Despite the many remarkable abilities of non-human animals, and despite the hopes and dreams of many animal lovers, animals do not have language like humans do—but they do have basic ways of communicating with each other, which we’ll explore later in the episode. In addition, no animal is able to acquire human language. Like many urban legends, such myths are widespread! Let’s start with a few animal communication systems; then, with what makes human languages different; and finally, we’ll explain why no animal has been able to learn a human language—despite what the Internet may suggest.

How Do We Know that Animal Communication Is More Limited than Ours?

Animal communication systems are both interesting and impressive, but very limited in what they are able to express. Some animals seem to “talk” to each other, leading people to believe that because we can’t understand animals, they may have a language as complex as ours. Yet, this is not in fact the case. We are, however, able to research and uncover much of what animals express to each other. For example, you may have heard that bees can do a communicative dance to convey the approximate location and even the general quality of a food source. However, bees have no options to “talk” about any other subjects. We know this because of experiments that made honeybees walk back to their nests. These bees described how long they traveled to get home—indicating a very far-away food source—but they weren’t able to explain that they had not flown back or what had happened. (2)

Another example is research using spectrograms to measure the amplitude and sound frequency of dog barks. This research shows that dog barks can be divided into sub-types that express different emotions such as wanting to play vs. greeting other creatures. However, it can’t confirm for certain any consistent meanings behind the sub-types of barks, or even that dogs perceive differences. (6) Other research does find an array of emotions that dog barks express, including distress calls, protests, play, threats, and warnings. (1) But, as we’ll see shortly, this repertoire is a fraction of that of human language.

A third example is spiders, which have an intricate systems of courtship, including both visual and auditory cues like dancing, vibrating, thumping, and signaling. These cues vary, depending on whether the prospective female is in or out of her nest, and can also be used to communicate aggressive emotions to other male spiders. (4). Yet, the gentleman spider’s mating ritual is fixed; it only has one way to explain itself to the lady spider. (2) In contrast, the thought of humans having only one single sentence to express affection for another would be very peculiar.

A way to sum up what these examples have in common is to say that they are stimulus controlled. Animals communicate when prompted to by stimuli like hunger, danger, and other immediate circumstances, but they do not have communicative choices, like people do. When we experience an environmental stimulus like someone accidentally running into us, we may shriek in pain inadvertently, but we have speaking options too, such as “Look where you’re going!” or “It’s OK—my fault,” or “Fancy running into you here!” 

It is true that we have not tested the communicative competency of every animal out there. (3) However, the nature of human language and cognition are such that linguists aren’t holding their breath for the discovery of an animal communication system that even approaches human-language complexity or spontaneity. Human language is located in the language-centers of the brain, and these aren’t shared by animals.

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