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Do Animals Use Language?

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Language, as defined by the Cambridge dictionary, is ‘a system of communication consisting of sounds, words, and grammar.’ Most humans use language in day to day life as a method of communicating between one another. However, it is not fully clear whether animals use language to communicate or not. The most obvious example of animal communication is bird song. Owls, hummingbirds and songbirds all have distinct bird songs and Parrots have the ability to mimic sounds and the human language. However, is this purely mimicry or can parrots actually understand the language? Another prime example of animals communicating is the bee dance in which bees waggle their abdomen to tell the worker bees where to find the new flower or nectar source. Whale song is also another example of sounds being used to communicate with one another. However, are these purely methods of communication or can they be classed as language?

Parrots are one of few animals able to mimic words from the human language due to the physiology of the bird. Parrots have a syrinx which is very similar to the larynx in humans. As well as that they also have a very large tongue in comparison to other birds which can be used to manipulate the sounds into words. It is often questioned as to whether they can actually understand and speak the human language, or whether they are simply mimicking the sounds and words that they’ve heard from humans speaking. In the early stages of parrot development the baby parrot can hear words and eventually say them back learning a small amount of words and storing them in their memory, after this stage of development further learning can occur but not very effectively and most words learned after this stage are simply mimicry and not being used as language. For the words to be classed as language the parrot must understand that that the words have meaning and that they are used to communicate thoughts and ideas otherwise it is simply mimicry as they cannot express new thoughts and messages using the sounds they know.

The Bee dance is a form of communication used by bees to inform fellow worker bees of nearby nectar sources. There are 2 types of bee dance the waggle dance and the round dance. The round dance is used to inform fellow bees of food within 100 metres of the hive. The bee moves in a circular movement on the comb occasional changing direction offloading some of the food so the bees can identify the scent. The round dance unlike the waggle dance does not show the direction the food was discovered. The waggle dance is much more complex than the round dance and Is used to direct fellow worker bees towards far away food sources. The waggle dances are performed on vertical honey combes within the hives, using the azimuth of the sun as a reference the bees waggle their body accordingly. If the food is in the direction of the sun the bees will waggle upwards. If the food is at a 45-degree angle to the sun the bees will dance at an angle 45 degrees from the vertical. The duration of the waggle gives the bees information about the distance of the food from the hive and the angle of the waggle gives the direction of the food. These 2 components of the dance and the information that they transfer have been classed as a language as they are a tool used by the bees to communicate information and therefore can be classed as language.

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Whale song is another fascinating example of animals communicating in what could be language. Sperm whales, when diving in groups make patterns of clicking sounds called codas. These codas show evidence of use of a syntactic hierarchical structure which is something only humans have previously been known to use thus showing evidence that a whale’s song forms what could be described as sentences and therefore language. Humpback whales repeat certain sounds and ‘phrases’ for a few minutes, this is known as a theme. The whales string multiple themes together for up to 30 minutes and this is known as a song. The repetitive nature of the themes and the patterns in which they follow show evidence for the use of grammar and syntax and therefore language. Along with the evident use of language, studies have also shown that whales have regional dialects and supposed ‘accents’ and can identify which whale’s song belongs to a certain individual within a group.

In a recent study a beluga whale was added to a facility with a pod of dolphins and it was discovered that after 2 months the beluga whale started to imitate the whistles of the dolphin. Dolphins make 2 distinct sounds, clicks and whistles. The clicks are used primarily for echolocation and the whistles are used to communicate with other members of the pod. In a recent study by Vyacheslav A. Ryabov, it was found that dolphins exchange varying pulses of sound with each other. The variation of the pulses suggest evidence for the use of words and multiple pulses being exchanged show evidence for the use of sentences. These supposed words and sentences were expressed without interruption from the other dolphin suggesting the idea that a conversation was occurring between them. Many scientists however strongly disagree with this study’s supposed findings claiming that the methods of recording the dolphins clicks and sounds were wrong and the experiment was not properly thought out making its findings invalid. Contrary to common belief, it has been suggested that the whistles act as a method of identification, similar to that of a name given to a human, within a pod rather than communicating information and thoughts therefore providing no evidence of the use of a language. It is believed that dolphins do have a language or advanced method of communication however we currently do not have the adequate research facilities let alone strong enough evidence to say for certain that they do.

Prairie dogs are a type of ground squirrel which burrow in the grasslands and planes of north America. They live in large colonies subdivided up into smaller coteries (families). Prairie dogs are small in size leaving them vulnerable to many predators primarily badgers, coyotes and hawks. Due to the prairie dogs being under constant danger from predators they have specific calls and warning sounds to alert the rest of the colony of the approaching threat. In a study by Con Slobodchikoff it was discovered that prairie dogs used different sounds and calls to describe each individual threat that the colony came across. He started off by sending fellow researchers acting as fake predators and further sending a badger, coyote and a hawk into the colonies and recording the calls the prairie dogs made. It was discovered that for each ‘predator’ the prairie dogs had a specific call sound which was the same amongst the different members of the colony however changed for each predator. This provided evidence that the prairie dogs had apparent words for specific predators. It was noticed however that for the humans the calls made were all very different leading to the idea that the prairie dogs were using nouns to describe the different features of the people. This led to further testing in which he sent in people wearing different colour shirts and a lab coat. The calls for the different colour shirts were all very different however for the researchers wearing the same lab coat the calls varied. The main difference between them being their height suggested that the prairie dogs could identify minor details in appearance and had calls to describe them. He ran the experiment again with 3 females each with distinctively different heights but wearing identical lab coats. Again, the prairie dogs had a specific call for each appearance showing strong evidence for the use of a high level of cognition. The experiment was run again on prairie dogs in a zoo presenting each colony with predators and recording the calls made however the prairie dogs in captivity showed no variation in the sounds made and used the same call for all of the predators. This further backed up his experiment showing that the prairie dogs learn the calls from others in the colony and therefore cognition was being used as the captive prairie dogs did not have specific calls for each predator. On top of this the prairie dogs in the wild were presented with 3 unknown shapes to test if they had a specific call for an unknown object. However, when presented with these unknown shapes the prairie dogs came up with new calls. This provided evidence that the prairie dogs don’t just use a premade set of calls but instead they have the ability to come up with new signals and ‘words’ showing a higher level of cognitive ability and use of language.

It is difficult to say for certain whether animals use language or not. What defines language in itself is very subjective as there are at least 3 different ‘types’ of language; metaphorical language, communicative language (as previously defined) and human language. Metaphorical language refers to language in a metaphorical sense such as saying, ‘the language of romance’ or ‘love’. If we use this type of language to answer the question ‘Do animals use language’ then the answer would be yes as it is more used to describe the appreciation of something rather than it’s literal meaning and therefore we could refer to almost anything as language for example ‘the language of the honey bee dance’ or ‘the language of whale song’. However, using this definition alone is not sufficient. Communicative language refers to the communication of information and language being the tool used to pass this information on. Honeybees use a dance to pass on information to fellow workers using a communicative language and dolphins communicate using clicks and whistles using this definition it would be said that these animals all use a language as they are communicating information between one another. However, this definition can again be applied to many things, the cells in our body communicate information with each other and plants produce chemical signals to respond to changes in their environment. Using this definition these would all be classed as language when in reality it is not. The final definition being that of human language is far more appropriate to use to answer this question. According to the lumen learning .com ‘human language is unique because it is generative, recursive and has displacement. Meaning that it has units that can be made into sentences which can contain themselves and that it can be used to convey infinite ideas using words or symbols. Using this definition it would rule out a lot of animals as not being able to use language

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Do Animals Use Language? (2022, February 17). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 4, 2023, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/do-animals-use-language/
“Do Animals Use Language?” Edubirdie, 17 Feb. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/do-animals-use-language/
Do Animals Use Language? [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/do-animals-use-language/> [Accessed 4 Feb. 2023].
Do Animals Use Language? [Internet] Edubirdie. 2022 Feb 17 [cited 2023 Feb 4]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/do-animals-use-language/
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