Friday, 15 July 2016

Animal Communication

Spoken language is unique to human beings; our closest genetic relatives do not have the same ability to speak. This post shall discuss if primates can learn language and to what extent, based on a research essay previously written for univeristy. Language is a barrier separating humans from non-human primates, the reason for this barrier is assumed to be genetic differentation. Researchers have attempted to teach primates human language to test for two different factors: their understanding of word referents and their ability to produce language.

Though language is attributed to humans, systems of communication are not solely human. Primates already demonstrate the ability to intentionally communicate within species using facial expression and gesture. Chimpanzees can communicate, but can they use human language? There's a genetic and autonomic difference with allows humans to speak but not other primates. Chimpanzees have shown to be unable to produce audio human language due to the differentiation of their vocal tracts (Vilain et al., 2011), which limits their ability to produce human sounds (Dobrovolsky, 2011). In knowledge of this, researchers attempted to study the mental capacity for language in primates rather than the physical production of words. 

Successful research operated using sign language or artificial symbol languages. Sign language deals with the same symbolic meanings as used in spoken language without the spoken element. Research suggests that non-human primates have the ability to understand and produce language by learning sign language, they also understand the relation between a sign and its meaning for the purpose of communication. For example, Washoe was a female chimpanzee who was taught American Sign Language (ASL). Researchers communicated with her using only non-vocal language, to test her linguistic capability. The study was successful as Washoe managed to use around 130 signs and combine them in ways that construed meaning (Dobrovolsky, 2011). She also was able to understand other signs which she did not produce. It was considered a break through when Washoe signed the two signs for ‘WATER BIRD’ upon seeing a swan (Gardener et al., 1989:281), as this wasn’t just a repetition of signs already seen; it was an assumed understanding of the referent. However, there was debate as to whether the reference of this sign was in attempt to name the swan as a bird of water. It seems as though this is the use of language for invention, to fit her limited vocabulary. On the other hand, it could simply suggest she was signalling two different signs, one in reference to the water, and one in reference to the bird. The research conducted to teach ASL to Washoe implies a capacity for linguistic ability, non-human primates may have the desired cognitive functioning to use signs related to language. This suggests that they have, in part, a linguistic ability similar to humans.

A semantic knowledge can be argued for non-human primates; however the language was not grasped syntactically. Washoe merely imitated grammatical structure, using signs together that had been previously used by the researchers. Without syntax a language cannot function to its full extent, suggesting a more advanced linguistic ability in human primates.

The potential of semanticity indicates a genetic relevance, as the production of these signs implies cognitive similarity between human and non-human primates. However, research does not show that they have the ability to understand the structuring of signs. Rules govern language; the syntax of a language is an important factor. Syntax is an indicator of the understanding of relationships between words and their meanings. Primates do not demonstrate this fully, instead they develop semantic abilities in order to communicate, the slight differences between species lead to evolved distinctive abilities. Human and non-human primate’s communication systems are advanced in separate ways to meet the demands of their environment.

DOBROVOLSKY, M. (2011) Animal communication. In Francis Katamba, William O'Grady and John Archibald (eds.), Contemporary Linguistics: An Introduction, 2nd edition. London: Pearson.

GARDNER, A. (ed.), GARDNER, B. (ed.) and CANTFORT, T. (ed.) (1989) Teaching Sign Language to Chimpanzees.  New York: State University of New York Press.

VILAIN, A. et al. (ed.) (2011) Primate Communication and Human Language. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.