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One of the important questions in the modern science is related to the use of communication by non-human animal species. In particular, it is sometimes alleged that animals may be using their own “languages” in order to communicate meanings to one another. However, such a question cannot be answered on the basis of pure speculation; in order to supply a reliable answer to it, it is important to gather a considerable amount of evidence pertaining to the issue and critically analyse it. Therefore, in order to approach the answer to the question “Are animals capable of using language for the purpose of communication?,” this paper provides an attempt to evaluate some of the scientific evidence related to this issue which has been gathered so far, for which purpose a number of recent scientific articles published in peer-reviewed journals are used. After assessing the evidence, it is argued that if the language is understood as a structured system of signs that is used conventionally in order to communicate meaning, then it is possible to state that most animals do not use languages; however, it is stressed that using the word “language” in this context might be misleading, for animals seem to utilise other systems of signals so as to communicate.
First debates seriously considering the possibility that animals may utilise language for communicating with one another began approximately in the 19th century (Pearson, 2013). These debates, however, revolved around the classical notions which were popular in a wide range of fields at the time; these notions were related to the binary opposition of the divine and natural. For instance, it was asked whether the language originates from the soul, and is, therefore, unique to humans, or is it a product of the body, and is, thus, possible in animal species as well (Pearson, 2013). A period during which more scientific studies were conducted in large numbers was the 1960-1970s; numerous experiments were carried out, many of which showed a certain degree of success; in particular, some new methods to teach animals language were able to partially accomplish the goal where the previously used approaches failed (Pepperberg, 2016). In particular, the statement that certain songbirds are capable of vocal learning gained some empirical grounds (Pepperberg, 2016).
These studies, as well as newer research on the topic, provide some grounds for answering the question about the use of language by animals. Answering this question may involve considering two different aspects related to the use of language, namely, production of signs and understanding their meaning.
Production of Signs and Signals
It seems quite obvious that animals are capable of engaging in communication with one another (in particular, with other representatives of their species) in order to give each other certain signals. However, it is stated that what they “say” in the process of such communication is usually not complicated; the animals mostly give signals related to the process of mating or to food; warn the members of their groups about possible danger; express the messages of groups domination (Balter, 2010, p. 969); and engage in certain types of conflict resolution (Naguib & Price, 2013). However, the way in which the animals communicate these are quite different from the manner in which humans use language.
In this respect, it is paramount to consider the aspect of vocal learning. The vocal learning is the process through which human babies learn to imitate the sounds of adults, and, therefore, gradually attain the ability to utilise the language (Balter, 2010). However, numerous observational studies have demonstrated that most animals are not capable of vocal learning; in particular, it has been shown that the sounds which a majority of non-human animal species employ do not significantly change with the passage of time (Brainard & Fitch, 2014). It is possible to conclude that these animals only use stable systems of signs for transferring a set system of messages (Seyfarth & Cheney, 2010).
Nevertheless, a number of studies have shown that some species are capable of learning new signals which are then employed for communicational purposes. In particular, it is stated that songbirds possess the ability to imitate and learn the tunes which are produced by their parents (Balter, 2010). Brainard and Fitch (2014) indicate that, according to the gathered evidence, the songbirds are not the only species capable of this; similar abilities have been found in certain mammals, including elephants and bats. Bowling and Fitch (2015) even mention researches which suggest that the “languages” of some birds have phonemes; however, the scholars argue that it might be more likely that birds employ combinations of acoustic units in order to communicate, which potentially makes parallels to music more fruitful than comparisons to language.
In addition, even though most animals are not capable of vocal learning (Brainard & Fitch, 2014), a number of studies suggest that certain species may be engaged in communication involving other types of signals. For instance, a research, which analysed over 100 hours of video recording of ape behaviour in a variety of zoos in Europe, was able to identify thirty-seven types of signs and gestures that “could be reliably assigned to one of six different meanings, such as ‘play with me’, ‘share your food’, and ‘go away’” (as cited in Balter, 2010, p. 971).
It has also been shown that apes are capable of learning new signals and subsequently utilising them for the purposes of communication. For example, Bishop (2010) provides an example of an ape (gorilla) that has been taught to utilise sign language, and now employs it in order to give comprehensible responses to questions that she is asked. In particular, it is noted that when she is asked to describe herself, Koko (the ape) uses sign language to state that she is a “fine animal gorilla” (Bishop, 2010, p. 360). It is also worth pointing out that Koko’s behaviour is rather resembling of a female who does not have children, but desires to have one; similarly, other apes have proven to be able to learn behaviours they are taught, in particular, to behave as babies (wear diapers and drinking using glasses) (Bishop, 2010, p. 355). In any case, it is apparent that apes may be capable of learning certain types of language (in particular, sign language) and using it so as to communicate complex meanings. This may be true of other animals as well (Birjandi & Bijani, 2010).
Understanding the Meaning of Signals
In spite of the successes with teaching apes language, it still seems that most animal species cannot learn and use any languages (Balter, 2010; Brainard & Fitch, 2014; Pepperberg, 2016). However, it is still evident that a wide range of animal species are capable of being trained to respond to certain signals and prompts, and act in specific ways. Thus, certain researchers argue that there is an asymmetry in the animal communication; while most animals are unable to learn and use language, and only employ certain kinds of calls in a narrow range of situations and conditions, they still can receive and understand a wide array of signals, and act correspondingly (Seyfarth & Cheney, 2010). A large amount of evidence suggests that the capability of these species to comprehend, interpret and respond to vocal signals is very flexible, and that it can be changed as a result of animals’ experience – in particular, as a result of training (Seyfarth & Cheney, 2010). Because of this, it is claimed that animals receive information from the signals which are given to them, and that even the signals that are produced by other non-human animals carry a considerable amount of information in them (Seyfarth et al., 2010). Therefore, while most animals are not able to learn how to use languages, they might be capable of learning the meaning of certain signals that are given to them.
Therefore, evidence suggests that some species of animals (mainly apes) can learn and use certain types of language if they are directly taught to do so (Bishop, 2010); other species, such as songbirds, are capable of vocal learning, at least partially (Brainard & Fitch, 2014); but most animals cannot learn how to use new signs, and the range of the signals that they employ remains (virtually) stable over the duration of their life (Balter, 2010; Brainard & Fitch, 2014). The fact that animals cannot learn and utilise languages similar to those which are used by humans is not surprising; for instance, Birjandi and Bijani (2010) point out that “human language is highly dependent on a neuronal network located in specific sites within the brain which other animals haven’t or if any, very little” (p. 91). However, numerous species are still capable of learning how to understand and react to certain signals (Seyfarth & Cheney, 2010). Therefore, it might be asked whether employing the concept of “language” is adequate when referring to the communication of animals. It seems that at least some differentiation should be made; whereas the apes have been shown to have a certain capability to use language, other species do not possess it, but still engage in communication. In certain cases, it might be more effective to use other parallels, such as “music” in the case of songbirds (Bowling & Fitch, 2015).
Therefore, it is possible to conclude that animals do not use language for the purpose of communication, if the term “language” is understood in a human way, that is, as a conventional, structured system of signs that is utilised in order to communicate meanings. However, it is apparent that certain species (apes) are capable of being taught languages (in particular, sign languages) to a certain extent. Furthermore, it is clear that numerous animals can be trained to understand a variety of signals, and that their capability of understanding these is greater than their ability to use new signals. In addition, it should not be forgotten that different species possess different abilities. On the whole, it can be reasoned that using the term “language” in relation to animals might be misleading, because non-human species may employ other systems of signals for the purpose of communication; in particular, the analogy of the song has been stated to be more appropriate than that of language with respect to songbirds (Bowling & Fitch, 2015).
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Birjandi, P., & Bijani, H. (2012). Animal communication and the origin of human language. Modern Journal of Language Teaching Methods, 2(1), 91-101.
Bishop, R. (2010). Some other kind of being: Human nature and animal subjects in ape language research. Feminism & Psychology, 20(3), 350-364. Web.
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