Can Animals Learn a Human Language?

Knowing a language is an ability to perform linguistic functions.  Humans and animals use language as a communicative skill throughout their lives. There are some drastic differences between the human`s way of communication and the animal`s way of communication. For instance, human language is based on words. Whereas, animal communication is based on screams, gestures and calls. Besides, what triggers humans’ need of speaking is simply the need for communication. Whereas, what triggers the animals’ need of communication is their hunger and fear. I am going to argue against that animals have the ability to learn human language by examining some cases such as monkeys, dogs and chimps.

First animal species are Baboons, the old world monkeys. Baboons had been observed for 25 years by the professors of the University of Pennsylvania. Baboons and humans have shared some social and cognitive skills, such as the concept of kinships, hierarchal, and the rule governed structure in language. How do we know this? A new study, conducted by the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) and the University of Edinburgh, shows that baboons were responsible for conveying information about the task to one another and they could memorize and reproduce information they gather. However, just because baboons and humans have shared some cognitive skills, this does not necessarily mean that they can learn a human language, because baboons do not have words to describe these skills. (Seyfarth et al, 2005)

Second animal is a border collie dog called Ricoh, who had the ability to differentiate given information from new information. Ricoh knew 200 names of different items and could keep them in his mind. There was an experiment where Ricoh had 20 toys on the floor, and he did not know only one of the item`s names, he was still able to understand which item his instructor was talking about when he gave a command to bring the new item by combining his old knowledge and the new item`s knowledge.  Thus, it can be said that Ricoh had the ability to learn things he had never heard before. This learning method is called fast mapping and this method is the same learning method as human children use when they are exposed to a new word. However, Ricoh`s ability to learn several item`s names is not a clear evident for that Ricoh can learn a human language, because one of the most important properties of human language, unboundedness, is not examined in Ricoh`s case, which is the ability to create meaningful words and sentences from morphemes by combining them.

Final species are chimps, and there are several examples of chimps who showed some abilities to learn a human language. H.S. Terrace observed a male chimp, called Nim Chimsky for five years. Nim was exposed to American Sign Language (ASL) and after five years of observation, Terrace was suspicious about whether chimps are able to learn a human language or are not: because, Nim was unable to utter complex utterances, although he was able to learn 125 signs in his first 44 months of observation. Nim’s ability cannot go further than simple utterances, because Nim was actually mimicking his parents and teachers, so he was not producing language. Therefore, we cannot say that Nim was able to learn a human language, because Nim’s ability was just to imitate the signs he was exposed to. (Terrace, 1979)

In conclusion, although animals and humans can have some shared social and cognitive skills, language always requires more cognitive skills and learning a language is uniquely corresponds to human beings. Besides, animals cannot learn a human language, because animals cannot go futher than imitating and memorizing their owner’s words.

One thought on “Can Animals Learn a Human Language?

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  1. I don’t think this is correct because humans also only mimic language.
    We learn it from our parents and any ‘new’ words are only just a new combination of sounds.


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