The world of animal language
January 2018 by V. R. Duin


In the hot and balmy tropical weather.
Spanish and English came together.
Molly caught sight of her brother, Jim,
And excitedly called out to him.

Dolly the Parrot, a bilingual parrot, helps V. R.  Duin describe the animal language learning process and complex communication system.

A few animals can speak with meaning. Parrots are among these special few. Training a parrot to speak provides stimulation and interaction that is not possible with most other animals. Some animals can understand commands expressed in two or more ways. For instance, a dog may understand and respond appropriately to “come” and “here”. If humans could understand animal language, this understanding might help us trace the evolution of human language. People learn a lot from animals. Animals teach people awareness, compassion, patience, responsibility. They can show people how to achieve kind, healthy, interconnected relationships. The animal language learning process and complex communication system of animals may be similar to those behind the development of human languages. Some animal senses, such as smell, hearing and vision, are far superior to those of humans. The signals delivered in response to these sensory receptors serve as alarms and provide humans with guidance for investigations and understandings of our environment.

People generally appreciate the communications, feelings and understandings shared with animals. The intensity of animal gestures, movements, facial expressions, sounds and other non-verbal communications guide these understandings. Screeching squirrels or a dive-bombing birds give clear territorial warning to human and animal trespassers. Animals may be disinterested in understanding lengthy human communications. Tone and pitch of words may be of greater importance to them. Few people understand the vocal communications of animals. These communications often are easier to describe than to fully understand. Entire vocabularies of such animal sounds as chirp, screech and buzz enrich human language. Animals often understand human words, intentions, habits and emotions, without having an ability to communicate in these word combinations. Training improves relations between pets and their owners. However, for the animal language learning process, it seems easier to teach animals to understand human language and commands. People are challenged to learn and repeat the signs and sounds of the complex communication system of animals.

Studies are under way to bridge this language gap. Scientists are studying signs, signals and sounds in the complex communication system of animal languages. Each animal seems to have some form of communication with others of its species. A study published in the University of Washington news on June 23, 2005 established that Chickadees' Alarm-Calls Carry Information about the Size Threat of Predator. The movements and sounds of one animal species may be interpreted for the safety and preservation of members of other species as well as their own. Animals seem to understand other animals. Researchers into the animal language learning process have learned that some animals can identify sounds of distress or signals of alarm made by other animals. The listeners react by taking cover or by taking advantage, as best suits their needs. Lizards use push-ups, head-bobs and other physical displays to broadcast communications to neighboring males and females. All mammals seem to enjoy the warm caresses and friendly companionship of others. A bilingual parrot can understand animal language as well as human language. We mentioned Alex, the African Gray parrot, in our Bird Brains article.

There are other examples of animals communicating with people. The passing of Koko the Gorilla on June 19, 2018 reminded people of her uncanny human language ability. Koko was able to express English words through modified sign language. Other animals may be capable of forming human words. Animals are innovative and creative. However only humans have evolved to formalize their inventions in print, audio and digitalized form. Animals seem to communicate with other members of their species. Dolphins appear to use names in the form of distinct whistles when addressing each other. The animal language learning process and complex communication system of these mammals may have some similarities with those of human languages. People are mammals, too. However, people seem to have an ability for advanced thought processing, learning and introspection that may be lacking in other animals. Animal communications seem to address primitive needs for food, mating, preservation and shelter. Humans store and exchange information development to achieve greater creative and technological innovations than is possible in the animal world.

Thanks to technological advancement, machines are increasingly being used to translate between written human languages; i.e. Spanish to English or English to French. The language learning process of machines is advanced. Machines can make predictions based on past experiences with data feeds. Machines are now being used to detect sounds for security purposes in prisons, health facilities, homes, offices and schools. Can machines teach humans to communicate with animals? Machines are deeply programmed for search, indexing and voice recognition. Machines may compile animal language intelligence. Machines may become capable of translating or interpreting the complex communication system of animal language into human words. In the future, machines may assist people with their animal language learning process. The sound recognition ability of machines is highly evolved and may be more accurate than that of humans or other animals.

As the language learning process of machines advances, arguments about the merits of machine translation versus human translation eventually may extend to translations or interpretations of the complex communication system of animal language. A computer is capable of holding and processing a vast amount of data. However, that data must be entered by humans. Can machines translate animal language to human language? With human languages, the difference between machine and human translators boils down to quality, quantity and cost. Machines are faster and cheaper than human translators. Translation generally involves the written word. Machines are developing the ability to learn from past experience. Interpretation generally involves the spoken word. Machines can create artificial sounds that trick humans into believing they are real. Can those machines trick animals, as well? Machines require a user interface to complete tasks for humans. It is not clear whether human interfaces adequately can interpret between human and animal communications.

Professional translation done by humans is generally of superior accuracy when compared to that of machines. Humans often are required to make judgment calls as to context and precise meaning. However, to mimic the production of animal sounds, humans may be challenged. Cats can sound like a crying baby, a screaming adult or a chattering bird. The purpose of these communications may not be clear to humans. Animal language may not have the depth of human language. As the animal language learning process of machines advances, machines may decipher the meanings behind each of these distinctive sounds. Machines ultimately may prove to be superior to humans at producing translations of the signs or interpretations of the sounds between the complex communication systems of animal and human languages. Artificial intelligence is rapidly developing an efficient data base for use in animal and human sound interpretation and generation. However the programs are not fully developed or user-friendly.

Machines already are being programmed and made available to help people with the basic translation of animal language. However, the first issue to resolve is whether animals truly have developed a language learning process that present true language skills. Do they merely use a system that is more akin to signaling. Leading dolphin scientists are in dispute. Animal communications may not have fully evolved into a complex communication system of animal language. There are units of communication among dolphins, per Stan Kuczaj and colleagues. There are there none, per Justin Gregg and colleagues. However, all animals seem capable of communicating and understanding emotions. Animals feel anxiety, pain, joy and sorrow. Some of them may have a conscience and display genuine regret for having eaten that homework.

Further studies are under way to explore the animal language learning process and to determine the extent to which it has evolved into a complex communication system. It is insightful to explore opportunities and potential for human communications with animals. Humans with animal awareness skills can find enriching career opportunities in veterinary health services, animal rescue and wildlife management. Animal language translation applications are available online. Someday, machines may fully bridge the communication gap between humans and animals. In the meantime, humans can generally communicate feelings to our animal friends, and vice versa. This exchange can be accomplished without the development of a complex communication system between human and animal languages. Not all forms of Animal Systems of Communication are intelligible.

Complex Communication System

  • Language Learning Process Dolly says:

    Francine “Penny” Patterson and some of her collaborators have documented Koko's life and language learning process in a variety of books, peer reviewed articles and on-line information.

  • Complex Communication System Dolly says:

    Constantine Slobodchikoff has spent decades decoding and learning the complex communication system of prairie dogs, and documenting this effort, down to the distinct dialects of these rodents between countries.

    • Animal Language TranslationDolly says:

      Author V. R. Duin worked as a translator and court interpreter for many years, so she is particularly interested in the language learning process, including animal language.