Human Language Challenge

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 24 September 2016

Human Language Challenge

Various studies on non-human language had been done to evaluate the probability that animals use a communication system similar to human language. Some researchers claim that the gap between human and animal language is not that great. They believe that animal language has some of the features of our language. Some argue that researchers discount this similarity because of their bias to maintain the status quo as the forerunners in the evolutionary race. Other researchers advocate the other extreme. According to these researchers, the gulf between animal and human language is so wide that there is no basis for comparison.

Some contend that the claim of animal language researchers are “exaggerated self-delusions” (Johnson, 1995, p. 1). This paper will analyze studies on non-human languages to prove that our claim to be the most evolved species in terms of language use has valid foundations and not egoistically-motivated. Language Versus Communication According to Jannedy, Poletto and Weldon (1994) it is difficult to compare human language with animal language because we do not have a “suitable working definition of ‘language’” to use as basis.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (2000) defined language as “communication of thoughts and feelings through a system of arbitrary signals, such as voice sounds, gestures, or written symbols. ” Definitions like this are so broad that researchers narrowed it down by coming up with properties of language. The Animal Language Institute (n. d. ) proposed three elements of language. These are: “rule-governed grammar,” meaning and effect on the environment and behavior of others. They claimed that animal language possess these “elements” thus human language and animal language have parallelisms.

Some researchers use the properties of human language suggested by Charles Hocket in 1960. These properties are: “arbitrariness, cultural transmission, discreteness, displacement, duality, metalingustics and productivity” (Cited in Karr, n. d. ). Non-human languages do not have all these features and “thus we conclude that no non-human species uses language” (Jannedy, et. al, 1994, p. 21). From these two examples, the debate on language definition and properties remain problematic. Disagreements on the elements of language to be followed continue.

To give more light to the issue, other researchers attempted to distinguish “animal language” from “animal communication. ” Dr. Shanker, a York University philosopher, argues that “language is not just a matter of encoding and decoding strings of arbitrary symbols. It is a social act that is always embedded in a situation. ” From this statement, language and communication are taken to mean the same. Dr. Noam Chomsky of MIT on the other hand, argued that language is “innate and unique to people” and teaching linguistic skills to animals is “ irrational — like trying to teach people to flap their arms and fly” (Johnson, 1995).

Animal language” is to be used solely for the modeling of human language in animals (Karr, n. d. ). Thus the communicative systems observed in most social animals like apes, bees and whales fall under “animal communication. ” Based on these examples, it is clear that we can not rely on language to solve the issue. As long as we can not come up with general criteria on this matter, debates will continue to ensue. Non-human Studies Chimpanzees are commonly used in studies of animal language.

Researches using infant chimpanzees raised as real babies had been performed. Because of their different laryngeal structure of chimpanzees, researchers shifted from vocal to sign language. Use of “keyboard” devices or lexigrams became popular. Chimpanzees are taught to associate symbols with things, people and places. Dr. Savage-Rumbaugh reported that the chimpanzees were trained to communicate with each other through symbols. According to her, “chimpanzees can demonstrate the rudimentary comprehension skills of 2 1/2-year-old children” (Johnson, 1995).

Dr. Terrace argued that a chimp might learn to connect a hand signal to objects but it is just a matter of conditioning and does not mean they have acquired the ability to use the language. (Johnson, 1995). There is no denying the chimpanzees communicate to each other in their own way but to say that they can be trained to use our language to communicate to us is debatable. Another non-human species studies are the Songbirds. The songs are said to be complicated. Some researchers describe their language to be “articulate. ” (Karr, n. d. )

Research showed that despite the complexity of the song, it lacked the creativity to express meanings present in human language. Research found out that it is not the sound but the pitch that other birds pay attention to when they hear the song. African Grey Parrots famous for their ability to mimic human language were also studied. In a study conducted by Irene Pepperberg in 2005, she reported that the bird understand that”his labels are comprised of individual units that can be recombined in novel ways to create a novel referential vocalization. ” (Cited in Animal Language Institute, n. d. ).

This study however proved that the birds are able to mimic sounds and come up with different combinations of the words but it did not show that they have total comprehension of the meaning implied by the words being uttered. It Honeybees communicate the source of food to the members of the hive through a “bee dance. ” The dancing has patterns: round, sickle, and tail-wagging to represent distances of the food source from the hive (Jannedy, et. Al, 1994, p. 23). The dance conveys many different messages like human language. However, they are confined to a single subject, which is the source of food.

Honeybee dance lack the flexibility and creativity of the present in human language. Wolves exhibit many facial expressions and body gestures and sounds or growls to express their feelings. However, like the honeybees, their gestures are “highly stereotyped and limited” in meaning (Jannedy, et. Al, 1994, p. 25). Other studies are done on whales, squid, crabs and other animals. While a system of communication is observed in all of these studies, use of sophisticated language similar to the human language is not observed in any other species. Conclusion

The issue surrounding animal and human language will remain debatable due to absence of a general criteria accepted both by human linguists and animal language researchers. However, based on the different studies, it is safe to conclude that as of today, no other species has attained the level of sophistication human language has attained in the verbal, signal or written communication. It does not matter how many parrots and songbirds we can train to sing the national anthem or how many chimpanzees we can teach to paint or cook, the fact remains that as long as we are the species doing the “teaching” we hold the status quo.


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  • University/College: University of Arkansas System

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 24 September 2016

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