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Can animals use language?

November 6, 2016 , by Dr Julian Northbrook

Are humans the only animals with language?

This is a hard question to answer because it depends on how you define language.

Some kinds of monkeys have distinct calls that indicate different kinds of predators. One call for a predator on the ground. Another for one in the sky, and so on. They don’t have ever have productive grammar systems.

Some Animals Do have Language

Irene Pepperberg spent 30 years teaching language to a parrot. It learned about 100 words and could recognise some objects. Not much else.

There has been work done with Dolphins, too.

Unsurprisingly most of the research teaching language to animals has been done with apes — in particular, the bonobo, a very intelligent species.

The Most Famous Example

Probably the most famous example of an animal that has learned “language” is Kanzi, the Bonobo.

Researchers at Georgia State University taught him language using a special keyboard with symbols on it. They managed to teach him some words and even some simple grammatical patterns. He learned to use very basic language productively — he could ask for things, and respond when he got them.

But even then … this does not come even close to what human beings can do.

Human Beings are Not Special…

As a species, human beings are not special. We’re just another type of animal. We eat, sleep, shit and reproduce. Some of us do some things in between. But we’re still just animals when it comes down to it.

But our cognitive ability…

now that is special. And a big part of that ability is language.

Nothing else on earth comes even close to using language like we do. And our language is so complicated that even the worlds top researchers still have no idea how it works.

Language is amazing.

And we are amazing because we use language.


Julian Northbrook
Language Punk

P.S. Wanna speak English better than Irene’s parrot?

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