Can Animals Use Language?

If they can, what differentiates human language from non-human animal language systems?

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Distant Relatives

Language development in chimpanzees and apes has been a large area of research most likely due to their genetic similarities to humans. There are a few famous studies. Wahsoe leaned 250 ASL signs and formed rough sentences (Perry). Similarly, Nim Chimpsky learned about half as many signs (Marsh). Koko, however, was able to learn about 1,000 ASL signs but understood double that amount (Cohn). This would place her at a three year old vocabulary level if she was a human. Though all of these feats are impressive, they all have a striking commonality — all of these primates were using signs to get rewards. Even the trainers of Nim concluded that he did not learn language, but simply imitated them to receive prizes (Marsh).

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Like humans, sparrow songs are learned within a critical period and these songs seem to be innately guided. They are only learned if they are exposed to them. If sparrows are only exposed to other species’ songs, they follow a species-specific structure (Marler). Unlike humans, these songs have fixed meanings and thus are not generative. This seems to follow the pattern that animals have similar characteristics as humans to an extend, but have a definite difference in language acquisition.

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Man’s Best Friend

Chaser the dog is a good example of how animals are able to learn stimulus and their meanings. Not only was he able to remember each name, phonetic sound, of his toys but also, by process of elimination, make choices about unknown names. This is like child language, except that children do this naturally, on their own, without the promise of a treat. Chaser learned 1,000 words, likely due to a conditioning to discriminate between phoneme sounds. Surprisingly Chaser the dog was able to chose the toy with an unknown name provided he knew the rest. This is very similar to when children are tested for a mutual exclusivity bias. Given a banana and an unknown object, the children can deduce the name of the unknown object a vast majority of the time (JoVE). The main difference stems from the fact that Chaser needed encouragement to fetch the unknown object and did not learn from a process of deduction (Philley and Reid). Chaser may be able to do this by scent, sight recognition, and other familiarity cues to figure out the unknown rather than going through all of the known objects and deducing the unknown which is most likely the process used by humans doing a similar task. However, like the primates, Chaser’s vocabulary plateaued at a juvenile level.

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Another major difference between human and animal acquisition is the ability to creatively produce new ideas. A child can hear boy and boys and girl and girls and then produce cups from cup. Alex the parrot, like the other animals explained, do not have this ability to creatively generate these ideas from other experience. Only once they have learned cups could they mimic it correctly. An interesting experiment was done where children were given a non-word like wug and they were able to produce the plural form wugs (Menn). This ability to make inferences and creatively inflect novel words seems to be unique to humans.

Works Cited

Cohn, Ronald. “Why Koko the Gorilla Mattered.” Why Koko the Gorilla, Who Mastered Sign Language, Mattered, 21 June 2018,

Detroit raised, Los Angeles living. Recent accounting and linguistics grad from USC working in public accounting.

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