Can humans communicate with animals?

interspecies communication
Kanzi really seems to know his stuff. See more pictures of primates.
AP Photo/Steve Pope

Koko the gorilla wowed the world with her ability to learn sign language and converse with her handlers, but not everyone was convinced. Many experts have questioned the validity of Koko's example, as well as other case studies that test animals' communication abilities and thought processes. They point to possible flaws in the experiments, such as the potential for rote learning, mimicry, reaction to unconscious cues in the examiners' behavior and assumption on behalf of the handlers. Researchers have since worked to counter doubters by conducting further studies in more controlled conditions.

But putting aside the possibility of error in the testing process, let's look at some interesting cases of human interactions with animals that, if actually displaying direct communication, could have amazing implications for our understanding of language and cognition in the animal kingdom. As we go along, keep in mind that the question of what constitutes communication and when that concept slips into the realm of actual language isn't so simple.


The case of Kanzi, a bonobo chimpanzee, is one such example. Kanzi lives at the Great Ape Trust research center near Des Moines, Iowa and has been acquiring communication skills since he was an infant. At first, psychologist Sue Savage-Rumbaugh was trying to teach Kanzi's mother how to use a special keyboard she'd developed to sidestep some of the control problems that had sparked controversies after Koko's training. But it proved to be little Kanzi who was picking up the most knowledge -- and doing it from simply being in the room, not the focus of direct attention.

So Savage-Rumbaugh decided to instruct Kanzi in the same way human children learn to pick up language skills. The bonobo spent his days engaged in normal activities with adults who spoke to him and taught him corresponding lexigrams (abstract symbols that represent written words) as the need for them arose. Kanzi proved an excellent student and an eager participant in daily social interactions, learning hundreds of lexigrams and understanding thousands of spoken words. And although he, along with his little sister, Panbanisha, still have their fair share of critics, Savage-Rumbaugh claims they can also understand grammatical concepts, refer to the past and the future, invent figures of speech and imagine how the world must seem from another person's point of view.

It appears Kanzi has communication skills about on par with a 2-and-a-half-year-old human, which might not seem like much but is far beyond what some thought was possible. But what if we venture outside the small family of great apes? Can humans communicate with nonprimates? We'll dig into that idea on the next page.



Communication with Nonprimates?

Though little Alex (pictured here with his primary researcher, ethologist Irene Pepperberg) has died, his legacy lives on.
Though little Alex (pictured here with his primary researcher, ethologist Irene Pepperberg) has died, his legacy lives on.
AP Photo/File

Now let's take a dip into the water and check out the communication skills of the bottlenose dolphin. Research at the Dolphin Institute in Hawaii has shown that bottlenose dolphins, while obviously not able to converse verbally due to a lack of vocal cords, seem to comprehend language at a rather masterful level. Through a simple series of hand gestures, the dolphins not only understand what the researchers are trying to convey semantically (the concepts and objects they're describing) but also what they're indicating syntactically (the word order and grammar structure). Such syntactic understanding is a fundamental component of processing language.

The dolphins also appear able to understand linguistic references. For example, a gesture representing "ball" is understood to represent a variety of objects with similar characteristics, rather than simply one specific ball. The dolphins can also indicate whether an object is currently in their habitat, refer to objects when they're out of sight and understand the future implications of present actions.


Still, since it's practically impossible to determine exactly what's going on inside their heads, it's challenging to try to demonstrate what kind of communicative capabilities bottlenose dolphins truly posseses.

A third potential example of human communication with animals came in the much more compact 1-pound package of an African gray parrot named Alex, who died in 2007. Like the bottlenose dolphins, Alex seemed to have a simple grasp of syntax and object permanence. But unlike dolphins, Alex could actually vocalize words. But how much of what he said did Alex actually understand? His ability to process information was difficult to decipher, so it's hard to prove whether the words he uttered were to him a collection of sounds that produced results, or were the result of actual comprehension. But researchers on the case claim Alex grasped many communicative and cognitive concepts such as manipulating numbers, deciphering different shapes and materials, and understanding concepts such as bigger or smaller and same or different.

The debate over whether animals are capable of actual communication with humans in a meaningful way is far from settled. But to learn more about what possibilities are out there, look over the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

  • Adams, Cecil. "Are gorillas using sign language really communicating with humans?" The Straight Dope. March 28, 2003. (3/10/2010)
  • "Bottlenose dolphins." Sea World. (3/10/2010)
  • Great Ape Trust Web site. (3/10/2010)
  • Hamilton, Jon. "A Voluble Visit with Two Talking Apes." NPR. July 8, 2006. (3/10/2010)
  • Linden, Eugene. "Can Animals Think?" Time Magazine. March 22, 1993. (3/10/2010)
  • "Our Research: Past and Present." The Dolphin Institute. (3/10/2010)
  • Raffaele, Paul. "Speaking Bonobo." Smithsonian Magazine. November 2006. (3/10/2010)
  • Smith, Dinita. "A Thinking Bird or Just Another Birdbrain?" New York Times. Oct. 9, 2010. (3/10/2010)
  • The Alex Foundation. (3/10/2010)
  • The Gorilla Foundation. (3/10/2010)
  • White, Thomas. "Between The Species."Loyola Marymount University. August 2009. (3/10/2010)