It is more factual and accurate to evaluate and admire an animal's intelligence by looking at its own innate biological abilities than by how much human language it can learn. In fact, the way humans and animals can bond and connect without language makes it all the more remarkable.
Can Non-Human Primates Learn Languages?
We’ve all heard convincing stories about non-human primates, such as chimpanzees being taught human sign language. By now, you can probably think of many aspects of true human language that we would never see a chimpanzee reproduce. Human signed languages have grammatical markers that make a word plural, and ways to indicate verb tense, plus many other complexities, but those features have not been produced by any chimps.
An ape named Washoe learned more than 100 signs (5), and Alex the African Grey also knew more than 100 words, but even if 100 could compare to the hundreds of thousands in a human language, “knowing” a language is infinitely more than memorizing words in a dictionary. From this, we are led to the conclusion that no chimpanzee has ever actually learned a human language. Research also finds that these animals use what they learned from us to play or imitate (like the parrot Alex, who sometimes chose to name every color except the correct one on purpose, or the ape, who frequently continued to sign while humans signed to her—not showing much intention to communicate). (5)
Symbol Learning versus Language Acquisition
Finally, the most important difference in the animals to whom people have tried to teach language is … just that: They were taught! All of these documented cases of word associations learned by animals required extensive training over long periods of time, from the chimpanzee in the lab to your pet dog at home. There is no animal in existence who has learned any amount of human vocabulary with attached meanings by mere exposure alone—they are always explicitly and painstakingly trained to do this. This is a critical and distinct difference from the process through which human children—at ages that precede being able to use a spoon, or be toilet-trained—are able to comprehend and produce complicated sentences, with clear intentions and need to communicate, without any instruction at all. (For more information about how we know that children learn language by exposure and spontaneous interaction alone, check out this article.)
Without exposure to humans, primates in the wilderness do not sign, and parrots imitate whatever sounds they hear, such as the calls of other animals. This critical fact makes any animal accomplishment in the realm of human language a fundamentally different process, as does the fact that a chimp using sign language with other chimps is pretty far-fetched.
Take note, animal lovers! Establishing these facts about people and other creatures by no means claims that humans are “superior.” Animals do an infinite number of remarkable feats that we can’t do! It is common knowledge that dogs can smell and hear remarkably better we can, and that dolphins can hold their breath for far longer. However, just as people could not learn how to spin a spider web or see in the dark with the acuity of a cat, it is just as inaccurate to claim that a non-human primate could learn a human language at a fraction of the level that all humans do—especially when we understand and compare the process to the speed and effortlessness with which human children do so. (2) Some may even argue that hoping for non-human animals to talk is anthropomorphizing and equating speech with intelligence. It is more factual and accurate to evaluate and admire the intelligence of an animal by its own innate biological abilities, not by how much human language it can “learn” or respond to. In fact, the way humans and animals can bond and connect without language makes it all the more remarkable.
Syelle Graves has two master's degrees in linguistics. You can read more about her at syellegraves.com.
1. Feddersen-Petersen, D. 2000. Vocalization of European wolves and various dog breeds. Arch
Tierz, 43(4), 387–397.
2. Fromkin, V., Rodman, R., & Hyams, N. 2011. An Introduction to Language. 9th Ed. Wadsworth, Cengage.
3. Jackendoff, R. How did language begin? Linguistic Society of America.
4. Jackson, R. 1978. An analysis of alternative mating tactics of the jumping spider. The Journal of Arachnology 5, 185–230.
5. McWhorter, J. 2004. The story of human language part I. The Teaching Company.
6. Yin, S., & McCowan, B. 2004. Barking in domestic dogs. Animal Behavior, 68.
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