Why haven’t we given any other species the gift of language?

  • #1
Why haven’t we given any other species the gift of language? It’s pretty clear that there are several other species with not only the capability to learn communication, like sign language, but also the ability to pass it on. We have seen various primates and others pass on the knowledge of tool use. Why hasn’t anyone realized that we can give some of them the gift of language? It might even help stop some poaching.
 
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  • #3
hutchphd
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How do you propose that this gift be bestowed? I occasionally talk to my cat. She sometimes talks back if she cares to. Good enough....
 
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  • #4
jack action
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Why haven’t we given any other species the gift of language?
Why hasn’t anyone realized that we can give some of them the gift of language?
Is anyone stopping you from giving the gift of language to other species?
It might even help stop some poaching.
It certainly doesn't stop some humans from killing other humans with the gift of language.
 
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  • #5
Do you think I am talking about animals in zoos? Do you think I’m studying a group of gorilla in the wild? My God these replies make me think that they’re smarter than us. Course I’ve seen that I’ve seen everything I’ve seen more than any 10 of you have ever seen I’m almost 70. You ever heard of sign language?should check it out it’s not new but it’s interesting. Crows don’t have arms but they know how to gesture but you probably haven’t seen that either
 
  • #6
russ_watters
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Do you think I am talking about animals in zoos? Do you think I’m studying a group of gorilla in the wild? My God these replies make me think that they’re smarter than us. Course I’ve seen that I’ve seen everything I’ve seen more than any 10 of you have ever seen I’m almost 70. You ever heard of sign language?should check it out it’s not new but it’s interesting. Crows don’t have arms but they know how to gesture but you probably haven’t seen that either
Careful. Your original post is of very poor quality, and the somewhat snarky but honestly questioning responses reflect that. It contains an obvious contradiction in that you ask why we haven't "given the gift of language" to animals, then gave an example where we clearly have. So it isn't obvious to the other posters if you recognize that most animals are simply incapable of significant language ability, and the ones that are, the ability is pretty limited, despite significant effort/research on our part.

So to repeat: what species do you propose we give them the gift language on and how would we do that?
 
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  • #8
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Why haven’t we given any other species the gift of language?
We have. They just haven’t done much with it. I guess it didn’t fit.
 
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  • #10
berkeman
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Why haven’t we given any other species the gift of language? It’s pretty clear that there are several other species with not only the capability to learn communication, like sign language, but also the ability to pass it on. We have seen various primates and others pass on the knowledge of tool use. Why hasn’t anyone realized that we can give some of them the gift of language?
As noted, we already have done extensive work with sign language and primates. Pretty cool stuff. Beyond that, the communication skills of dolphins and whales is interesting, even though we didn't do anything to "teach" it to them. Perhaps with more study we can start to understand their language better and do some rudimentary communication...
https://us.whales.org/whales-dolphins/how-do-dolphins-communicate/
1600211425097.png

It might even help stop some poaching.
I'm not sure how that follows from anything in this thread. The animals are not going to call 9-1-1 when they see poachers approaching, and I don't think it will end well if they try to "talk" the poachers out of shooting... :wink:
 
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  • #11
We have given sign language to a couple of gorillas who had no opportunity to pass it on to other gorillas. That is the extent of us giving language to any animals.

I would propose that gorillas in the wild should be taught sign language and not just be ignored by the embedded scientists studying them. I am sure they would teach each other what they learned. And I guess I’m the only one that thinks that a poacher might hesitate if he sees the gorillas talking to each other.

Crows are extremely intelligent and they communicate with each other. We just don’t know their language or how they communicate. An experiment was done with what was called a horrible mask with crows. Some researchers exposed some local crows to them wearing a hideous mask and scaring the crows. If I recall the crows would try to mob them when they wore the mask or something like that. The then went to the other side of the city where the crows had not been exposed to the researchers with the mask. But they had already learned to recognize the mask. Somehow the original crows had communicated the news about the horrible mask to the other crows nearby.
 
  • #12
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We have given sign language to a couple of gorillas who had no opportunity to pass it on to other gorillas
First, gorillas and bonobos are different species. And second, that is not correct, at least for Kanzi. He does not live in isolation from other bonobos. He is in fact the “alpha male” of his community of bonobos.

Somehow the original crows had communicated the news about the horrible mask to the other crows nearby.
And all without humans “giving them the gift of language”. They are what they are, respect them as they are and don’t try to make them into what they are not.

The fact is that a huge amount of human language relies on specific neural structures in the human brain. Humans learn language because we are physically built for it. This can be seen by the very specific language deficits that accompany brain injuries to different regions of the brain. Trying to give most animals human language is like giving a fish a bicycle. They simply are not built for it.
 
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  • #13
russ_watters
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Chimps also, and they do in fact teach each other:
https://mybabyfingers.com/chimpanzees-teach-other-apes-to-talk-via-sign-language/

But it is an uphill battle that takes a lot of effort and doesn't bear much fruit if you're comparing a small handful of animals to the millions out in the wild. It's just not feasible and doesn't provide all that much value. They aren't people and we can't turn them into people by teaching them a few signs.
 
  • #14
jim mcnamara
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As a biologist: the basic premise of "why can can't we give .." is not remotely reasonable. Your assumptions do not match Biology. And to be fair some discussion above is anthropomorphizing some aspects of the issue.
Why?

Short answer: we cannot understand other animals verbalization (if that is what the sounds are). Plus a few other species may have some as yet undetermined language ability. Their biology, brain and ours is a mismatch.

Our brain is part of the problem:
Humans are hypersocial and have very large brain, specially adapted for verbal communication.
Not completely true in other primate species. Let's not debate what constitutes a language. Since we truly have no full understanding of any complex allospecific vocalizations.

Our brain actually creates special neural connectivity - synapses (wired) - in different ways depending on the language we use as a child. We cannot hear many foreign language sounds (phonemes) for this reason. This is the cause of an 'accent' in non-native speakers learning second languages.

Example: native Japanese speakers use a different brain structure for music than do Indo-Euopean language speakers. -- An example of the extreme plasticity of human brain development. People who learn to speak Japanese (very well) later in life have a different the music "center" than native speakers.

See:
https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.3109/00016489.2016.1139745

Other points, other species:
We cannot seem to understand another species, dolphins. A large brained species that appears to communicate in complex verbal structures. This is a brain/aural organs wiring mismatch between the species. Big time.

So we are trying out computer software and hardware to get past those limitations:
https://www.fastcompany.com/3028931...let-humans-and-dolphins-to-talk-to-each-other

Again, we are not wired to speak dolphin ( assuming it is complex like ours is). First and foremost:. We cannot physically hear frequencies greater than ~18K cycles/sec. Some dolphin vocalizations (if that is really what they are) are higher pitched than this limit. Could be navigation, for example - like sonar.

Elephants, another large brained species, can hear subsonic sounds through their feet. We cannot hear that.

Our feet never evolved to do that. Mismatch.

Whale songs repeat and extend every year. Very complex, way beyond discussion here. Google 'Gordon Orians' who first documented the song cycles. Which can be heard across ocean basins, FWIW. Again another Biology mismatch.

So the question is interesting but a non-starter. And the assumption that language is purely human-specific could be very wrong, but we do not know. So, we may not need to teach, we may need to learn. Which is what other posters are expressing, I believe.
 
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  • #15
I think most people here even the children know the difference between a gorilla and a chimpanzee.

“Although Kanzi learned to communicate using a keyboard with lexigrams, Kanzi also picked up some American Sign Language from watching videos of Koko the gorilla,”
Wikipedia

That doesn’t sound much to me like an ape in the wild, or even sign language for that matter, with his clan. His main form of communication evidently is lexigrams not sign language.

OK, end of story. I guess I was crazy to propose the idea of teaching a group of great apes sign language in the wild to a group of science enthusiasts who are completely open minded to scientific inquiry on any subject. If that was snarky I apologize, I once stayed at a Holiday Inn with Anthony Bourdain.
 
  • #16
Drakkith
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OK, end of story. I guess I was crazy to propose the idea of teaching a group of great apes sign language in the wild to a group of science enthusiasts who are completely open minded to scientific inquiry on any subject.
The fact of the matter is that human language requires extremely complex neural structures that no other species on the planet possesses. Even a simplified version such as the sign language taught to several great apes species is very difficult to teach, and I doubt that apes in the wild would be able to teach it to each other. And even if they could, what reason would they have to learn it? Apes in the wild already have their own communication methods that work just fine and that they have evolved to use. Sign language is designed to allow animals to communicate with us, not with each other as far as I know with my limited understanding on the subject.
 
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  • #17
symbolipoint
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Sign language is designed to allow animals to communicate with us, not with each other as far as I know with my limited understanding on the subject.
Maybe that should be changed to say like, "Sign language is designed to allow DEAF and HEARING people to communicate with other DEAF or HEARING-IMPAIRED people".

Here is just a guess: but evolution of animals on earth has given them along with it, the GIFT of each species' own method of communication, regardless of those methods being "languages" or not.
 
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  • #18
Drakkith
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Maybe that should be changed to say like, "Sign language is designed to allow DEAF and HEARING people to communicate with other DEAF or HEARING-IMPAIRED people".
Haha, yes indeed.
 
  • #19
Of course our brains are wired that way, we talk and they don’t. A brain constantly rewires itself to facilitate whatever that brain likes to do. That is one big reason why Einstein could do what he did, single minded intent and focus rewired his brain to do what he wanted it to do, math and physics. I think you will find that that is a common aspect of most outstanding geniuses whether it’s science math or music. Focusing your mind on one single thing to the exclusion of almost everything else, like Einstein did, completely rewires your brain to facilitate that intent. This was forced on some geniuses in the past. Others like Einstein did it voluntarily. Stephen Hawking is a good example of being forced into it by being able to do nothing but think. Not many people do it voluntarily anymore. Last I knew The neurons in an ape brain have the same capabilities as the neurons in our brain or am I wrong about that? I think you would find some different re-wiring in Kanzi’s or Koko’s brain if they were dissected.
 
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  • #20
symbolipoint
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You are beginning to get somewhere with this:
could do what he did, single minded intent and focus rewired his brain to do what he wanted it to do, math and physics. I think you will find that that is a common aspect of most outstanding geniuses whether it’s science math or music. Focusing your mind on one single thing to the exclusion of almost everything else, like Einstein did, completely rewires your brain to facilitate that intent. This was forced on some geniuses in the past. Others like Einstein did it voluntarily. Stephen Hawking is a good example of being forced into it by being able to do nothing but think.
Do several other animal species really WANT to communicate with us in the way that we could or would teach them? On the other direction, maybe some individual animal on occasion wants to communicate with us, in THEIR way, but we just do not know how to listen.
 
  • #21
jack action
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Of course our brains are wired that way, we talk and they don’t. A brain constantly rewires itself to facilitate whatever that brain likes to do. That is one big reason why Einstein could do what he did, single minded intent and focus rewired his brain to do what he wanted it to do, math and physics. I think you will find that that is a common aspect of most outstanding geniuses whether it’s science math or music. Focusing your mind on one single thing to the exclusion of almost everything else, like Einstein did, completely rewires your brain to facilitate that intent. This was forced on some geniuses in the past. Others like Einstein did it voluntarily. Stephen Hawking is a good example of being forced into it by being able to do nothing but think. Not many people do it voluntarily anymore. Last I knew The neurons in an ape brain have the same capabilities as the neurons in our brain or am I wrong about that? I think you would find some different re-wiring in Kanzi’s or Koko’s brain if they were dissected.
I totally disagree with that way of thinking. You seem to think that they are "better" brains than others. Even among the same species. Not being a specialist about the subject, but I think that we are way past that in our biology studies.

@jim mcnamara wrote one of the most well-written post I ever had to read in this forum. I suggest you re-read it more carefully to fully grasp what he's saying.
 
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  • #22
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That is one big reason why Einstein could do what he did, single minded intent and focus rewired his brain to do what he wanted it to do, math and physics. I think you will find that that is a common aspect of most outstanding geniuses whether it’s science math or music. Focusing your mind on one single thing to the exclusion of almost everything else, like Einstein did, completely rewires your brain to facilitate that intent. This was forced on some geniuses in the past. Others like Einstein did it voluntarily.
I'm not sure where your ideas about Einstein come from. He lived and loved, played the violin, and thought about many things besides relativity and spacetime. There are any number of good biographies out there. A. Pais is a good one (https://www.amazon.com/dp/0192806726/?tag=pfamazon01-20)
 
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  • #23
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the GIFT of each species' own method of communication, regardless of those methods being "languages" or not
That is exactly it. Each species has a communication method that fits that species’ neural structures, body structures, environments, and communication needs. Giving human communication structures to animals for which they are not adapted is giving a fish a bicycle. They simply are not built to use it.

Frankly, to me it always seems disrespectful of the animal to anthropomorphize. They are their own beings with different needs and motivations than ours. We should seek to understand them as they are, not make them into us. If we want to give them a gift then we need to understand what kinds of gifts would fit them, not us.
 
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  • #24
berkeman
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Frankly, to me it always seems disrespectful of the animal to anthropomorphize.
Yeah, they hate it when we do that. :wink:
 
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  • #25
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I guess I was crazy to propose the idea of teaching a group of great apes sign language in the wild to a group of science enthusiasts who are completely open minded to scientific inquiry on any subject.
For me, it isn’t a matter of scientific inquiry or enthusiasm. It is a matter of scientific ethics. I think what you are proposing would be unethical.

One of the explicit rules for research in wild populations is “Researchers have a responsibility for reducing the disruption and any impact of the natural behaviors of the animals”. It seems to me that trying to teach wild animal populations human language is expressly against that ethical guideline.

Note, I am not saying that you are immoral. Scientific ethics is rather specialized and not the same as morality. I am just making you aware that if the resistance to this idea is surprising to you then it may be partly because you have inadvertently stepped into an area with ethical implications.
 
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