Essay: Human’s uniquely superior linguistic abilities vs. language use in non-human species

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  • Human’s uniquely superior linguistic abilities vs. language use in non-human species
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Through research on language use in non-human species, it has become evident that the human species has developed language abilities that no other species seems able to obtain (Snowdon, 1990). This assessment will discuss how research has evaluated different communication systems through observing species’ ability to learn certain aspects of human linguistics as well as attempting to decipher what language skills they have evolved naturally. Additionally, this assessment will discuss how factors such as human anatomy and developing environments seem to be potential reasons why non-human species fail to seriously threaten the human’s uniquely superior linguistic abilities (Snowdon, 1990). However, many of the mechanisms that humans have rapidly evolved also exist in other animals to a less developed extent, suggesting that animals can demonstrate potential to bridge the gap that makes human language more advanced (Snowdon, 1990). Regardless of the strength of species’ communication abilities, decoding their language mechanisms proves crucial in understanding how humans have developed this remarkable characteristic that sets them apart from all other species on earth (Snowdon, 1990).

Between the inevitable uncertainty that comes with studying fossils and having no access to observing species before they evolved into their modern forms, much of research is limited to studying living animals (Traxler, 2012).

Various species have been identified that seem to have evolved specific communication mechanisms that are uniquely adaptive to their environment for survival and success. Ants, for example, use a system of odor detection in coordination with touch and body-language mechanisms to communicate about food, land, survival and reproduction (Quigley, 2019). Additional research on communication systems in insects described how bees perform a dance to encode and provide information on the location of food sources (Frisch & Chadwick, 1993). Despite the complexity of the bee’s communication system, however, they can only communicate about nectar location, suggesting that the variety of applications within their language system is limited (Frisch & Chadwick, 1993).

Marine animals have been observed using tools, such as dolphins putting sponges onto their noses for protection and aid in fish catching, demonstrating creativity and intelligence (Quigley, 2019). They demonstrate communication abilities through sharing this knowledge with their offspring, as well as establishing complex social societies where information on safety and food can be communicated through sounds like whistle vocalizations as well as touch (Dudzinski & Frohoff, 2008). No research, however, has found indication that dolphins can plan a sequence of actions or think rationally, therefore lacking some of the strong and developed characteristics of the human-language system (Quigley, 2019).

Vervet monkeys have served as a strong model for a natural communication system with semantics, demonstrated through their alarm calls that can convey what type of predator is present (Seyfarth, Cheney, & Marler, 1980). Specifically, for example, vervet monkeys will stand up and look through the grass if a snake alarm call is made, whereas they will climb into a tree if presented with a leopard alarm call (Seyfarth et al. 1980). It is evident that they can make sense of the alarm calls, as they will produce alarm calls even in the absence of physically seeing a predator (Seyfarth et al. 1980). Similar to how humans can associate a word with an idea, these monkeys demonstrate an ability to make sense of different arbitrary sounds (Seyfarth et al. 1980).

Song birds are heavily researched in this field due to some unique similarities to certain aspects of the human language. Both songbirds and humans have a sensitive period during youth, a developmental period where imitation of adult vocalizations will allow for the easiest learning of the communication system (Quigley, 2019). More specifically, research has shown both species have a higher expression of the Forkhead box protein P2 (FOXP2) gene when learning their form of language, have the Broca’s and Wenicke’s brain areas to separately address auditory and vocal abilities, and have a left hemisphere that is more responsible for language processing (Quigley, 2019). Despite these intriguing behavioral and biological similarities in vocal learning, birdsong is described as having “phonological syntax,” where the songs contain patterned units to communicate specific intentions, but lack meaningful words (Quiqley, 2019). For example, a female songbird is likely to pick a mate who can produce songs of higher complexity, an indicator that he will carry fewer parasites and therefore produce healthier offspring (Smith, 2009). Although phonological syntax parallels the mechanisms of the human language, birdsong lacks the lexical syntax of the human language that allows for more complex meaning to develop from different applications of sound structure (Quigley, 2019). Additionally, it is important to note that there are various models of birdsong learning, implying that research must further investigate which of them best corresponds with the human language model to truly understand how certain components of human language evolved (Snowdown, 1990).

There is one famous example of non-human generative syntax; chickadees can arrange their four notes into different call sequences, which research suggests could potentially be encoding information, although evidence of this has yet been developed (Snowdown, 1990).
The study of Kanzi, a male bonoboo, was conducted to better understand the linguistic abilities of apes, an exceptionally valuable species for providing information on the evolution of human nature as they are our closest animal relatives (Tagliatela, Savage-Rumbaugh, & Baker, 2003). Through conditioning, Kanzi eventually demonstrated changes in vocalization to refer to different objects within a concept, such as for the words “fruit” and “bananas” (Tagliatela et al., 2003). Although this research encourages the idea that an ability to make these differentiations in vocalizations will cultivate before an ability to truly speak develops, it must be noted that although we can train apes with language and syntax, they do not appear to use this type of language naturally in their communication system (Tagliatela et al., 2003).
Attempting to teach apes language can help researchers understand whether these abilities could manifest had they grown up surrounded by language use or whether it simply was determined by biological factors (Traxler, 2012). To explore this idea in terms of producing human words, Vicky the chimpanzee was raised by two human adults, similar to the rearing of a human infant, where vocalization was encouraged through reward (Gardner & Gardner, 1969; Lieberman, 2000). Vicki struggled to develop at the rate of a normal infant, only producing a few words, which was later recognized likely as a result of apes lacking the anatomical pre-requisites in their vocal apparatus that regulate spoken speech (Gardner & Gardner, 1969; Lieberman, 2000).

The study of Washoe, an ape that was taught to communicate through sign-language, demonstrated an ape’s ability to independently arrange signs of learned words to different concepts, such as describing a duck in her sanctuary’s pond using the signs “water” and “bird” (Fouts, 1975). Some remain skeptical of this study, highlighting the inability to understand if Washoe’s use of arranging different sign sequences was for communicative purposes or was simply a stimulus-response that was not necessarily done with a purpose (Traxler, 2012).

Terrace, Pettitto, Sanders, and Bever (1979) believed the Washoe experiment results could likely be explained by the ape’s conditioned motivation to produce a sign, motivating them to conduct a study on a chimpanzee named Nim to learn about an ape’s ability to understand simple word sequence. The chimpanzee showed some forms of successfully applying basic word ordering knowledge, for example using the structure “give me” more often than “me give” (Terrace et al., 1979). However, Nim’s accurate grammatical applications were not demonstrated nearly often enough to be comparable to the grammatical accuracy seen in the majority of humans using language, suggesting that despite their ability to engage in some forms of language grammar, the more advanced aspects of grammar used by humans seem to go beyond a reachable point for this species (Terrace et al., 1979).

Researcher Savage Rumbaugh spoke on confounding factors that could have been influencing these studies limited success in demonstrating language abilities in apes, such as phylogeny, ontogeny, or a lack of immersing them into a highly interactive language atmosphere at an earlier age (Brakke & Savage-Rumbaugh, 1996). To gain more control over the potential influencers, her experiment consisted of raising a bonobo named Panbanish and a chimpanzee named Panpanzee, and exposing them both to language from youth (Brakke & Savage-Rumbaugh, 1996). In addition to paralleling the rearing of language exposure, this experiment eliminated the risk of trained language abilities resulting from a focus on reward by instead revealing them to spoken language, gestures and lexigrams, ultimately allowing this experiment’s observations to be more clearly related to the two species’ biological differences (Brakke & Savage-Rumbaugh, 1996). While the early exposure to language seemed to encourage language abilities in both species, the chimp produced fewer words and the bonobo demonstrated more receptive comprehension, results likely due to their genetic differences (Brakke & Savage-Rumbaugh, 1996). Research suggests the species and learning environment interaction, however, is also influential, as seen through observation that bonobos raised by an interactive language culture will use symbols more naturally than chimps who were trained through operant conditioning (Brakke & Savage-Rumbaugh, 1996).

It seems that bird species tend to give the most insight into potential non-human vocal production abilities, whereas the ape studies have been significant in underlining the influence of environment and biological factors as well as demonstrating the ability to comprehend language concepts and use symbols, though to less developed degree than humans (Snowdown, 1990). With little to no evidence that non-human species can develop syntax and additionally integrate it into their communication system with functional significance, we can gain a larger appreciation for the intricacy of the human language (Snowdown, 1990).

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