In her article 'Minds of Their Own' published in 2008 in the National Geographic Magazine, Virginia Morell discusses animals' ability to acquire language skills. By bringing the examples of Alex the Parrot, dolphins, primates and even crows, Morell dispels the age-old myth that animals cannot learn human language.
While her article is compelling and indeed informative, one wonders whether these examples indicate true language acquisition, or otherwise are they merely a reflection of intricate imitative capabilities.
The following essay will attempt to examine the question of non-human language acquisition through discussing the distinction between language and communication, as well as exploring the various abilities necessary for language acquisition and use.
The distinction between language and communication is not easily made; it has been the focus of numerous investigations and books. In addition, this distinction is at the core of a well-known developmental disability known as autistic spectrum disorders.
One cannot refer to language and language acquisition without mentioning the seminal work of Noam Chomski and his colleagues. According to Hauser, Chomsky and Fitch (2002), the word 'language' has a variety of meanings, ranging from culturally specific communication systems (for instance, English, French and Italian) to a linguistic view of language as an innate component of the human brain. This distinction is helpful in discussing the current question, since it allows the better focus the broad question of non-human language acquisition. If one were to refer to language as a communication system, then it would be probable that an animal with high imitative capabilities and the ability to acquire operant conditioning (a form of learning in which a connection is made between a certain stimulus and a response, intended to increase or decrease the rate of that behavior) would be able to make the necessary connections between stimulus and response. Indeed, some believe that this is the way human infants learn language (Sundberg, Partington& Sundberg, 1996).
In this sense, the examples in Morel's article refer to imitation and the use of conditioning. Consequently, according to the view of language as a communication system, one can say that through imitation and conditioning, an animal can be taught to respond to commands. Nevertheless, the question whether the animal truly comprehends what is asked of it remains unanswered.
The second view of language as an innate human mechanism posits that language is a complex neural construct. Proponents of this view would focus their investigations on comparing the human brain and its language mechanisms to that of non-humans. Such an investigation had found that there are non-human parallels to key language brain areas such as Broca's and Wernicke's areas, involved in speech comprehension and vocal communication respectively, even though some sub-cortical controls of language were found in primates. However, these constructs are involved in vocalizing, not comprehension or even language production (Snowdon, 1990).
In conclusion, while Morel's article provides compelling evidence of animals' ability to respond to vocal cues and even imitate them, it does not prove that animals have the ability to comprehend and produce language in a way similar to humans. In fact, this was not the aim of the article; it was intended to share some examples of non-human use of human language.
Hauser, M. D., Chomsky, N., & Fitch, W. T. (2002). The faculty of language: What is it, who has it, and how did it evolve?. science, 298(5598), 1569-1579.
Snowdon, C. T. (1990). Language capacities of nonhuman animals. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 33(S11), 215-243
Sundberg, M. L., Michael, J., Partington, J. W., & Sundberg, C. A. (1996). The role of automatic reinforcement in early language acquisition. The Analysis of Verbal Behavior, 13, 21.