Thursday, October 28, 2010

If We Could Talk to the Animals...

A little music for a Thursday...

Something interesting about that song is that it consistently refers to talking in each animal's own language: "Can you speak rhinocerous? Of courcerous!" It's pretty cool that a song writer would have that perspective when so often researchers aim to get animals speaking in a human language.

One well-documented example of the latter was the project involving Vicki, "the talking chimp". After much training, the researchers were able to get Vicki to approximate three words: Mama, Papa, and Cup. She did this with great difficulty and signs of stress, and had to use her hands to help her mouth form the "p" sound. The results were akin to getting a dog to say "I love you" or "mama"--you could imagine that the words were being said, but it does take imagination.

The failure to get the chimp to talk led to the myth of the "language instinct", that supposedly only humans have. But while a chimp can't speak English, it is plain that chimps can comprehend a spoken human language. This comprehension reveals that the animals do have language abilities. The inability to speak in a human language is the result of different physical aspects of their bodies, not underdeveloped minds.

More enlightened researchers, such as primatologist Dr Katja Liebal, believe that chimps have their own complex system of communication, and it is up to us to try to understand. Liebal is compiling a dictionary of the chimpanzee language, which uses gestures, facial expressions, and physical displays. She says that chimpanzees have a complex communicative system--even though they can't speak English.

Still, people prefer sameness. Earlier this year, much was made of a short film showing a bonobo chimp shaking her head to indicate "no". I was surprised at this, because I didn't think this was a great revelation. Even my cats will shake their heads to indicate "no". I suppose I should set up a camera and send a video of the cats to the BBC...

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