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While the jury is still out on how to exactly define what a language is, it is quite definitely the most complex system of communication on the planet. But, in the same way Spanish and Vietnamese differ from each other, one could argue that there are also different types of these systems that could be also be called languages. For example, those “spoken” by animals. Most experts agree that animals can’t use language in its strictest sense. Language is mostly considered a purely human skill and is also thought to be what separates us from all the other animals, including the great apes – our closest relatives on the evolutionary tree.

However, some animals do actually display rather complex systems of communication that could be characterised as languages in a slightly wider sense. So, today we’ll take a look at some of the more interesting ways animals can also speak to each other.

Even bees can talk to each other

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of trying to find languages in the animal world is how far down the evolutionary ladder these abilities stretch. For example, bees have a magnificently complex way of informing their hive of nearby food and directing them to it, harnessing very impressive maths.

When a foraging bee finds an especially tasty food source, it flies back to its hive and instead of depositing the food right away, it performs a certain “dance” to let all of the other worker bees know where they should fly to also take advantage of the food source. To give precise instructions, they use the position of the sun and cardinal directions.

The great apes can even learn sign language

Once we start getting closer to humans on the evolutionary tree, it’s perhaps no surprise that we also start finding language skills that are much closer to our own. For example, several of ape-relatives have been successfully taught sign language by their human companions.

Of course, this does not compare to the way that humans use sign language – as a full system of communication, with all the nuances of spoken language. However, in a more limited sense, some chimpanzees and other great apes have successfully “talked” with humans.

Although most of the sign language primates have used, has revolved around asking for food, there have also been some very interesting uses for their tools of communication. Take Koko – the famous gorilla who was taught sign language. She once tried to blame a kitten for ripping a sink out of the wall. If lying to try and get out of trouble isn’t the essence of using language, I don’t know what is.

Several animals try to imitate human sounds

One of the biggest problems animals face when trying to use spoken language is that their vocal organs aren’t as evolved as humans’. That makes producing the wide array of sounds that make up most human languages difficult if not impossible. However, in several cases when animals have come to close contact with humans, they have started trying to mimic the sounds of talking.

For example, Tilda the orangutan in the Cologne Zoo at one point started making sounds resembling human speech, possibly in an attempt to communicate with her human companions. Other examples include a Korean elephant who uses his trunk to manipulate airflow and produce some words in Korean.

Of course, the most famous imitators of human speech in the world are parrots and cockatoos. They can learn a vocabulary of thousands of words, although they rarely understand what they’re saying. There is one example to that, though – Alex the African grey parrot.

Alex – the bird who learned to talk

Although Alex who sadly died a decade ago, didn’t have nearly as impressive of a vocabulary as some of the other talking birds, he did something no other bird has done so far – he learned the meaning of the words he was imitating and used them to “talk” to his handler.

He could communicate his wishes – asking for food or to be let to go back to his cage after experiments. He could also correctly identify objects and describe them to a limited degree. Surprisingly, he might have also understood the concept of zero.

Can animals really learn to talk?

With the last examples, it might seem that with enough selective breeding, it might even be possible to produce animals who might be able to actually learn human language. However, the results of the tests with both parrots and great apes have come under some criticism recently. Sceptics doubt that these animals really use language in the true sense, but rather react to very subtle clues from their trainers in order to earn food.

But then again, if we consider language simply a tool for communication and communication between animals and people is what’s happening, what’s the problem?


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