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.