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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.

To what extent is language used by other animals?

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