Animal and Human Language

Before starting this class I had definitely questioned whether animals have “language” or not.  Just from watching my dog look at me or hearing birds chirping, I figured they must be communicating something meaningful because there’s no way they just walk around producing sounds that mean nothing.  Before the first week of this course I came to the conclusion that animals do have language and could communicate with other animals of the same species, but I figured that their communication was not as effective and complex as human language.

From starting this course and watching the lectures/completing the reading, I have learned that animals do not technically have “language,” and their communication skills do not appear to be very complex.  One thing I was surprised to learn is that animals cannot typically “learn” language like humans do.  Animal language is genetic, as displayed in the results of the study on Zebra Finches (baby finches who were isolated at birth eventually developed the same songs as adult finches) and the experiment where a baby child and a baby chimp were isolated together.  I was shocked to find out that the human child began imitating the baby chimp, and the chimp didn’t learn any of the human child’s language!  I had assumed that animals learned language in the same way humans did, so this was interesting news to me!

Humans and animals communicate differently in the sense that humans have very limited restrictions and can make new sentences each day.  Humans can communicate directly whereas animals have more of a broad communication system that is “stimulus dependant,” meaning they have limited sounds and calls they can make, and these sounds only make sense in relation to a particular element in nature.  Human language consists of arbitrary symbols, which make it possible for our language infinite.  For example, I can speak to another person and tell them exactly what I am thinking, word for word, and I even have the ability to rephrase what I want to say in order to maximize the listeners understanding.  When I speak to my dog, I can’t ask him to pick up the newspaper from the driveway and bring it in the house because animals don’t really understand our language.  Animals also do not have the vocal tracks that humans so, thus they are incapable of making human sounds.

Human and animal communication are similar is terms of signals and non-verbal communication.  For example, I can get my dogs attention and my sister’s attention, point in a direction and they would both follow my finger and look in the direction I’m pointing.  Nim Chimpsky is also an example of a chimp that learned more than 125 signs of sign language, which is also an ability that humans obtain.  Both animals (some animals, such as chimps) and humans have the ability to learn signs, but there is still a limit on how much chimps can learn.  I still have not noticed very many similarities between animals and human language; there definitely seem to be more differences!  I have already learned a lot within one week so I am anxious to see what the next few weeks reveal.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Lauren Moon says:

    You make very interesting explainations of the differences between human language and animal communication. I think your points are very valid and I agree, especially the genetic differences. I thought this was fascinating; how much animals are born with this innate ability to communicate, but humans need that stimulation and learning to be able to speak. I thought that was one of the biggest differences between humans and animals.

    Another shocking reasoning for these differences are the structure of our vocal chords. While watching the video, they explained that our voices are very unique from nearly every animal. I think this is a clear explaination as to why animals do not have the language capabilites that we have.

    You said that you still do not see many similarities between human and animal communication, and while I agree that there are not that many similarities, I can see that studying animal communication can teach us a great deal about human language. Throughout the reading, there were many studies that showed what we have learned from these differences. I think knowing that animals have genetic understandings and learn through immitations is important to humans. This shows us how we have evolved as a species. I doubt we have always used poems or told stories about our past. So somewhere in our history, humans have adapted language. Maybe studying animals and their differences can help us see how we evolved.

    So even though there are greater differences than similarities, we can still learn a lot about language through animal communication

  2. gardn252 says:

    Hey Tori, I agree with many of the things you are saying about human-animal language and behaviors. I too believed that animals had their own type of language like humans do. I thought that because of the way birds chirp, sing songs and call each other or how dogs bark at each other and use methods of communication that they then had a technical “language” they used to communicate. After watching the lectures and posts about how animal language is genetic and not learned how human language is I understood the differences between human “language” and animal communicative patterns a little more. I also was shocked when I learned the experiment done with the one year old boy and a chimp isolated together. I thought that the human would have taught the animal how to speak or communicate, when it was the opposite where the child started mimicking the chimp noises. I was astonished and like the parent in the experiment- a little troubled. But this study did help me to understand how animal communication is genetic and not learned- for if it was, the animal would have been able to learn language patterns from the child instead of vice versa.
    In regards to the Nim Chimpsky study, I always thought because you could teach a chimp sign language that they could possibly understand human language, but what it really comes down to is the signals they learn are their knowledge and capability of learning signals and using context ways to understand what I want. I too have dogs and have taught them signals or know when they are sad or happy, that is the display in context they have learned over time. Like you, I have already learned and have been very surprised to find out somethings from this class already, and hope to learn much more.

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