Penguins can talk to each other like people

Birds of a feather: African penguins in Italian zoos follow two rules of human language.

Do some animals have a language? New research has found that penguins speak similarly to us. But the jury is out on whether they use grammar and thought in a comparable way to humans.

The African penguin is not one of nature’s great conversationalists. Its typical one-liners translate as: “Hello”, “Get away from me”, and “Look at how big I am. Fancy mating?”

But in this small talk lies the clue to deeper rules of linguistics. Scientists have found that the language follows the same rules as human speech.

As with us, they use the syllables available to them to speak in the most economical way they can – for instance by reserving the shorter ones for the most common calls.

Livio Favaro, from the University of Turin, decided to see if their vocalisations followed the standard linguistic rules seen in primates. Favaro and his colleagues looked at a subset of the penguins’ calls, known as “ecstatic display songs”.

The researchers found that the linguistic laws of compression – which are true in humans, primates, and even in the computer programs humans use to send information – were also true among penguins.

This new research is a reminder that an incredibly diverse range of animals is capable of using complex forms of communication.

Many animals, including elephants, have been known to imitate human speech. Most famously, this is an area in which certain birds, namely parrots, excel.

Chimps and gorillas can master sign language.

One gorilla named Koko, who was raised in a research facility, understood over 2,000 words of spoken English and liked to be referred to as “Queen”. Her mind was as developed as that of a small child. After watching Jurassic Park, she even became scared of her toy dinosaurs.

Bees are known to dance in such a way that they mime out directions for other bees to find flowers. While critics will say the dances and their comprehension are hard-wired, it could imply that animals as simple as insects can have an idea of the future and plan their actions.

When scientists cut up a recording of birdsong, effectively remixing it, the birds did not respond to the new version. It made no sense to them. This suggests that these birds even have a simple sense of grammar. Their song was not just a random string of tweets.

Though we cannot yet imagine what it is like to be inside the mind of another animal, language is a wonderful window into what they find important enough to share with other members of their species.

It has been the life goal of many scientists to decipher how other creatures see the world. But does animal communication actually count as a language?

Tweet nothings

No. Language might be our most essential human trait. It is what allows us to see ourselves as distinct from other species. Other animals might communicate, but they are not able to enjoy the full benefits of language as we know it. As far as we know, there is no second world in their minds, no inner monologue. They cannot tell tales, they cannot imagine another planet.

Yes. The huge range of animals that communicate suggests that it is our definition of language that should be broadened. Social animals need communication to survive. The set of sounds and movements they need to understand one another is surely a type of language, even if it falls short of the standards we apply to our own. For all we know, animal languages could be far more complex than we might imagine.

You Decide

  1. Would you prefer to understand an animal or have an animal understand you?
  2. How would you define a language? Where is the dividing line between communication and language?

Activities

  1. Research how humans discovered the way one of the animals in this story could communicate. Present it to the class.
  2. In small groups, design an experiment that would be able to test the meaning of a dog’s barks.

Some People Say...

“You be good. See you tomorrow. I love you.”

The last words of Alex the African Grey parrot (1976-2007)

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
There is a difference between communication and language. Language is generally defined as a structured form of communication. Killer whales and beluga whales have been known to copy or make sounds similar to human speech. Dolphins are thought to have names for one another.
What do we not know?
Why we have found it easier to teach other animals our languages than we have been able to learn theirs. We do not know whether an animal imitating our words understands what it is referring to, or if it has learnt to associate certain sounds with certain situations.

Word Watch

Conversationalists
People who are good at or fond of engaging in conversation.
Linguistics
The scientific study of language and its structure.
Diverse
Broad set of different parts.
Excel
Do really well at.
Mime
To use body movements without speech.
Hard-wired
Built in, forced.
Decipher
Figure out, decode.
Trait
Characteristic.

Subjects

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