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Is there something you have always wanted to know about language? We might have an answer! On this page we answer questions about various aspects of language asked by people outside of the language researcher community.

Show or Hide answerWhy can't apes speak?
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Unlike humans, apes lack the anatomical pre-requisites for verbal language production. The organs within the vocal tract, such as larynx muscles and vocal cords, cannot be moved as freely and coordinated as in humans, especially not at a comparable speed. For this reason, we cannot talk with apes in the first place, even though they certainly understand and imitate a lot! (Click here for an example.)

Still, the communicative behavior of apes shares many characteristics with human language. Like many other animals, apes have developed ways to communicate that seem to resemble verbal language. However, most researchers refuse to call animal sign systems 'language' in the human sense because they are fairly restricted on many levels. For example, communicative signs are limited in number and cannot be combined to create new meaning. Also, apes can only communicate about things in their immediate surroundings, unlike humans who can refer to the past, the future or places and objects which are not present in the here and now.

Another reason why apes cannot speak is because they lack the cognitive capacity necessary for complex communication processes. Humans for instance are able to combine a limited number of words in such a way that they can express an infinite number of messages. We can also sequence smaller units of information, put them in a meaningful order and the result is a story. The brains of apes do not provide the cognitive resources to process such amounts of information. Apes can learn hundreds of words, but fail to use them in a creative way to convey complex meaning and intentions.

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Recent evidence however indicates that brain structures supporting language production in the human brain might not only have been present in the ancestors of today's humans but also in the ancestors of chimpanzees. It was found that an area of the brain involved in the planning and production of spoken and signed language in humans (Broca's area) plays a similar role in chimpanzee communication.

Written by Katrin Bangel and Franziska Hartung

Further reading:

More videos on animals and language (link)

Chimps May Have A 'Language-Ready' Brain (link)

Did Neandertals have language? (link)

Pinker, S. (1994). The language instinct: how the mind creates language. New York: William Morrow & Co.

Taglialatela J.P., Russell J.L., Schaeffer J.A., Hopkins W.D. (2008). Communicative Signaling Activates 'Broca's' Homolog in Chimpanzees. Current Biology, 18, 343-348. (link)

Show or Hide answerTo what extent is language used by other animals?
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We learn our language, use it to refer to things that are in another time or place, combine familiar words to create entirely novel messages, and use it intentionally to inform others. To some extent, each of these characteristics can be found in the communication systems of other species as well:

Learning

Dolphins develop personalized whistles that indicate to others who is calling, and pygmy marmosets “babble” like human infants, slowly pruning their vocal repertoire to match those of the adults. These examples of vocal learning demonstrate that animals can minimally shape or modify their communication as they develop.

Bees waggle dance

Image: Chittka L: Dances as Windows into Insect Perception. PLoS Biol 2/7/2004: e216.

Referring

Bees communicate the location of distant food to members of their colony through a dance they perform in their hives, and vervet monkeys call out alarms that differ based on the identity of the predator. Behaviour of bees and the vervet monkeys shows us that some limited referential communication is possible, at least about referents that are in a different location.

Combination

The evidence for the combinatorial nature of nonhuman language (i.e., the ability to combine familiar communicative elements to create novel messages) is limited, but some cases do exist, such as when Campbell’s monkeys combine call components to create meanings that differ from the original parts.

Intentionality

Whether communication in other species is intentional has primarily been studied in one of the species most closely related to humans, chimpanzees. Chimpanzees use alarm calls to warn ignorant others of danger more often than knowledgeable ones, and change their screams during aggressive encounters when someone nearby is likely to be able to defeat their enemy.

Despite decades of research, determining exactly which features of human language are unique and which are shared with other species is still a largely unanswered question. Given the diversity of efficient communication systems in the animal world, the more interesting and productive question moving forward may be how the communication systems of other animals work in ways that are entirely different from our own. 

Written by Katherine Cronin & Judith Holler

Further reading:

More videos on animals and language. (link)

Fedurek, P., & Slocombe, K. E. (2011). Primate vocal communication: A useful tool for understanding human speech and language evolution? Human Biology, 83, 153-173. (link)

Janik, V. M. (2013). Cognitive skills in bottlenose dolphin communication. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 17, 157-159. (link)

About MPI

This is the MPI

The Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics is an institute of the German Max Planck Society. Our mission is to undertake basic research into the psychological,social and biological foundations of language. The goal is to understand how our minds and brains process language, how language interacts with other aspects of mind, and how we can learn languages of quite different types.

The institute is situated on the campus of the Radboud University. We participate in the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, and have particularly close ties to that institute's Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging. We also participate in the Centre for Language Studies. A joint graduate school, the IMPRS in Language Sciences, links the Donders Institute, the CLS and the MPI.

 
Questions and Answers

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This project was coordinated by:

Katrien Segaert 
Katerina Kucera
Judith Holler

Sean Roberts
Agnieszka Konopka
Gwilym Lockwood
Elma Hilbrink
Joost Rommers
Mark Dingemanse
Connie de Vos