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Is Language A Uniquely Human Activity?

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Communication is an essential tool for the survival of many species, is used as a means to inform others of, and to receive information. There has been some fascinating research into animal communication. Karl Von Frisch in 1946 discovered that honeybees use a ‘waggle’ dance, to recruit less experienced bees within their colony to collect nectar and to indicate areas in which to find it, the dance corresponding to compass headings and flight paths (Riley, Greggers, Smith, Reynolds, & Menzel, 2005). It is believed that the dance not only mechanically indicates where location of nectar but also produces a chemical signal to the other bees (Biesmeijer & Seeley, 2005).

Zebra finches use songs to communicate things such as mating availability and territory, researchers have analysed the song and concluded that the songbirds have a rule based grammar system (Berwick, Okanoya, Beckers, & Bolhuis, 2011). Primates have been shown to use sign language or a taught system of symbols, the study of, Nim Chimpsky revealed that though his abilities were impressive, having learned 125 signs through operant conditioning (Terrace, 2010), he only used these signs to gain reward, he never used them to communicate with other ASL taught chimps unless prompted to do so by teachers,he would try other more natural gestures, such as grabbing, prior to signing in an attempt to illicit a reward, only reverting to sign if his initial attempt was unsuccessful. Nim’s signing was used response to gestures by teachers 90% of the time. Terrace submitted that there is no evidence of Nim’s understanding of syntax. (Premack, 1971) More primate examples Washoe and Kanzi. Washoe was able to learn more that 130 signs, she was taught ASL not by operant conditioning but by observing signs used in context by the Gardner family. Washoe taught signs to other chimps, her children and another chimp name Loulis (Hillix & Rumbaugh, 2004).

Kanzi, a bonobo, mastered hundreds of words using a lexigram board, Kanzi was not the target of learning but a passive observer of his mother being taught, Kanzi spontaneously approached and used the board, becoming the new target for the research. One observation showed, Kanzi made some loud vocalisations after being given some yogurt, his sister, who was in another room without visual contact, then also vocalised and selected the symbol for yogurt (Savage-Rumbaugh, Fields, & Spircu, 2004)

While some primate research has shown the lack of ability for language without intense instruction from humans, another example of communication in primates comes from Dr Catherine Hobaiter, Catherine has been researching the natural system of sign language used by chimpanzees. The researchers have been able now categorise 88 gestures (Hobaiter & Khalili 2018) Chimpanzee gestures are species-typical, many of which even ‘family-typical’, with extensive overlap in gestures recorded in gorillas, orangutans and chimpanzees, with 24 gestures recorded in all three genera. (Hobaiter & Byrne, 2011) Research is now also directed at the possibility that human children may possess the same instinctive use of these gestures. (Hobaiter & Khalili 2018)

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Defining language can be difficult as there are different schools of thought on the subject. R H Robins proposed that Language is a symbol system based on pure or arbitrary conventions, is infinitely extendable and modifiable according to the changing needs and conditions of the speakers.(Robins, 2020). A notable conflict regarding language is that of Piaget and Chomsky Piaget focusing on the role of cognitive development in language acquisition and Chomsky focusing on the role of genetic endowment factors. Chomsky believing that only the Human brain is competent enough to construct previously unheard sentences from finite set of sounds/symbols (Marras, 1983)

Chomsky et al said that language is “a set (finite or infinite) of sentences, each finite in length and constructed out of a finite set of elements”. “Contemporary human language syntax cannot be characterized by any finite state grammar” Note that a grammar must reflect and explain the ability of a speaker to produce and understand new sentences which may be much longer than any previously heard. (Biesmeijer & Seeley, 2005; Chomsky, 1956) Hockett et al had a similar view Hockett et al suggested two features of language relevant to syntax: discrete -‘The possible messages in any language constitute a discrete repertoire’ -and open -‘New linguistic messages are coined freely and easily, and, in context, usually understood’ (Progovac, 2016)

Shigeru Miagawer proposed another theory, that human language syntax has evolved from two simpler systems which he refers to as layers, expression (Type E) and lexical (Type L), Examples of both types are found in non-human species Type E in song birds and Typle L suggestively in honey bees. Type L could be attributed to vervet monkeys who have a different alarm call (name) for different predators: snake; eagle; leopard (Cox, Slocombe, Noble 2014) The calls were; socially directed; associated with visual monitoring and gaze alternations, and goal directed, ending only when recipients were safe from the predator (Schel, Townsend, Machanda, Zuberbühler, & Slocombe, 2013). The evolved integration of the L and E layers gives humans the ability to “yield the discrete infinity of human language” Miyagower et al hypothesise that (1) this could be caused by the shared intentionality of humans adding an expressive layer to the lexical system or (2) Building on darwins theory, that human language began as song with syllabic structure and prosodic contour, later evolving to a word system (Miyagawa, Berwick, & Okanoya, 2013)

There are many examples of features of language that could be attributed to non-human species. Including the use of grammar, symbolism and the ability for change/learning. The main feature of language for which there is no known animal example is that of the links between language and thought, the human ability to use language as a means to construct and communicate ideas, past, present and future. So while animal communication could have elements of language or even be called language by some definitions, the superiority of human language is unique.

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Is Language A Uniquely Human Activity? (2022, February 17). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 8, 2022, from
“Is Language A Uniquely Human Activity?” Edubirdie, 17 Feb. 2022,
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Is Language A Uniquely Human Activity? [Internet] Edubirdie. 2022 Feb 17 [cited 2022 Dec 8]. Available from:
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