As a little kid, when asked what superpower I wanted, the answer was always the same. ‘Talk to animals!’ I would yell, then proceed to go cuddle my dog, or run around the garden, or whatever my young carefree heart desired.
It may have seemed like a superpower to me back then, but we can actually speak to some animals. Or at least, there are some animals that can speak to us. For instance, on the news last week was an orca who could say hello! Vocal imitation may be rare in mammals but its common in many birds, such as parrots, or ravens. And teach a creature to say enough words, and recognise enough signals, perhaps you can almost have a full conversation with them. But how do you go about teaching an animal to speak? And is there any way for us to learn their native languages instead?
The Imitation Game
Over the years, there have been many cases of reported human speech in animals. Seals, elephants, dogs, cats, parrots – many different species can imitate our noises to say phrases. However, this human ‘speech’ is just imitation, not understanding the meaning behind the words.
This is seemingly due to limitations in brain power. It is thought that speech perception evolved from neural mechanisms passed down from our ancestors, and that some primates may have the same voice processing mechanisms that we do. There have been numerous studies trying to decipher the way that primate brains process both their own and human language, including brain imaging scans and behavioural investigations. However, brains are the most complex of all organs, so understanding the neurology of voice perception is no easy feat.
Of course, animals have very different anatomies to humans, and differences are prominent in the vocal apparatus. This means that animals may struggle to make the same noises that our human vocal chords can produce, even if they did have the brain power for speech. However, there have been studies recently grafting human vocal fold tissue into both dead dogs and live mice, so theoretically these limitations could be overcome (although there are obvious ethical issues with doing these kind of surgeries for non-essential research, so I doubt it’ll be a big area of science anytime soon).
Animals with the ability of ‘voice learning’ can mimic human (and other) sounds by listening and repeating, just like a baby would. The most famous creature with these abilities was Alex, an African grey parrot, who could not only say words, but recognise objects relating to those words and seemingly hold basic conversation.
Alex the Parrot | YouTube
Koko the gorilla could also communicate with humans, but instead of speaking, it was via sign language. The great ape could recognise over 2000 human words, but wasn’t able to speak, so communicated via ASL, American Sign Language. So there do seem to be isolated, very limited examples of human-animal two way communication. There’s a long way to go before we reach level of conversation and understanding that my childhood self wanted though.
Becoming Dr Dolittle
Scientists in the field of bioacoustics have been studying the sounds that different animals make in different situations. Some patterns are recognisable – repeated sounds of the same pitch and frequency in certain situation – which can be identified as mating calls, or danger signals, etc. So we know some of the basic linguistics of many different species. Forming a more complex picture of animal languages is a trickier business though. Whilst we can recognise specific patterns of mating calls, determining the meaning of individual noises may not be possible – do animals even communicate with the same basic building blocks as we do with words? Some creatures, like dolphins, are thought to use a mixture of vocalizations, touching and posturing, which makes decoding their language pretty complex.
Prairie dog | Pixabay
However, we are making progress. Con Slobodchikoff, a professor at Northern Arizona University, has dedicated himself to the study of prairie dogs, little rodents that live in colonies called ‘towns’. Slobodchikoff spent time looking at their alarm calls, and noticed that the rodents could come up with specific descriptive noises for different dangers, suggesting a complex language. For instance, they produced different sounds when exposed to round or triangular foreign objects. They could distinguish between different people wearing different colours. Now the professor, with some help from computer scientists, is trying to index the different sounds produced by the prairie dogs to help create a translational device. In an interview with The Atlanic back in 2013, Slobodchikoff said that he thought the technology to have a handheld device for translating barks and miaows into understandable sentences was about five to ten years away. So who knows? With the help of technology, maybe one day soon I’ll have the superpower I always wanted.