Sunday, October 30, 2011


The principle aim of this paper is to discuss the view that learning a language is species specific based on many arguments about the nature of learning a human language. The paper will take some cases of species or some animals specifically Washoe chimp and Nimchimpsky that had tried to learn a language and discuss the design features found in its language which are also found in the human language and pinpoint the design features that missed in its language that would make it disqualified as human language.
It is clear that language learning is species specific because the biological make up of different species is different. Humans cannot use or produce animal sounds thoroughly the way they do because their biological make up does not support certain sounds made by such animals. Equally some animals for example chimpanzees like Vick, Qua and others which tried to learn a human language could not manage because their biological make up is different to adequately support the human language in the same way humans use it. While its clear that most dominant living organisms like Birds, bees, bats, apes, worms, even humans have a communication system. Many animals use gestures, grunts, dances, whistles, or even cry to send a message to their other members. Humans have an unbounded discrete combinatorial system. Humans are able to take many morphemes, combine them together to make other meaningful words. Also, humans have rules and structures which enable them to make sentences. Many people may not relate the concept of human language to animals but it is merely a qualitative difference between the two species (Bickerton 1990).

Washoe chimp and Nimchimpsky tried to learn human languages alongside with others pecies. Washoe was trained in American Sign Language and showed the ability to make combinations of certain signs. She learned in ways she had never seen before. For example she combined the sign for "give me" with "tickle" to indicated she wanted to be tickled. Also, when encountering a monkey she disliked she signed "dirty" with "monkey" to express her disapproval of the other primate. The results were that Washoe could not learn successfully how to talk using human language but used sign language effectively to some extent. Nim Chimpsky, named after the great linguist Noam Chomsky, was the first chimpanzee to learn American sign language. Nim became famous, and was the subject of numerous books and television specials. But when the researchers had no more use for him, they opted to sell him to a hepatitis research lab, where he would have been the subject of painful experiments and eventually killed. Nim enjoyed looking at magazines, watching television, and putting on hats and shoes. The results on people’s attempts to teach monkeys intensively to learn human language failed.

After seriously lessons, animals failed to successfully learn a human language. The reasons for this failure is based on biological differences, it is clear that each species learns to communicate or a language of its own species. Thereby humans must learn a language communicated by fellow humans. Monkeys must learn a language communicated by fellow monkeys. Bees must learn the language communicated by fellow bees. This justifies the argument that language is species specific. Humans identify features that characterize their language and these features may not be found in the animals. However, the following properties of human language have been argued to separate it from animal communication: Arbitrariness which argues that there is no rational relationship between a sound or sign and its meaning. There is nothing intrinsically "housy" about the word "house" (Kako, 1999). Cultural transmissionarguing that Language is passed from one language user to the next, consciously or unconsciously. Discretenes says Language is composed of discrete units that are used in combination to create meaning. Displacement saying that Languages can be used to communicate ideas about things that are not in the immediate vicinity either spatially or temporally. Duality saying that Language works on two levels at once, a surface level and a semantic (meaningful) level. Metalinguistics showing the ability to discuss language itself and Productivity which argues that a finite number of units can be used to create an infinite number of utterances, (Roitblat, Herman, & Nachtigall, 1993).
Research with apes, like that of Francine Patterson with Koko or Herbert Terrace with Nim Chimpsky, suggested that apes are capable of using language that meets some of these requirements. However, no experiment has shown a non-human being to be proficient in all of these areas, (Hayes, 1951).
In the wild chimpanzees have been seen "talking" to each other, when warning about approaching danger. For example, if one chimpanzee sees a snake, he makes a low, rumbling noise, signaling for all the other chimps to climb into nearby trees. In this case, the chimpanzees' communication is entirely contained to an observable event, demonstrating a lack of displacement.
Arbitrariness has been noted in meerkat calls; bee dances show elements of spatial displacement; and cultural transmission has possibly occurred between the celebrated bonobos Kanzi and Panbanisha.[However, these single features alone do not qualify such instances of communication as being true language (Kellogg, & Kellogg, 1933).
Pinker (1994) indicates that most animals, such as chickadees, bees’ bats, and other types of birds, are bounded animals. These animals cannot construct new messages. Their way of communication is either through calling or singing. Another example would be the honeybees. Honeybees communicate through dancing. It is evident to show that honeybees do have a discrete combinatorial system. Honeybees are able to put together different dances to convey a message but they are bounded. Animals that have discrete structures are bounded and those that are bounded are discrete.

A study was done on an African Grey parrot named Alex. He was taught many symbols, colors, and numbers. Alex did not have that intelligibility to construct long sentences. Alex had the same intelligence of that of a five year old human being. His level of intelligibility remained constant.

Rumbaugh (1980) and Goodall (1964) argue that there is a very good reason why animals cannot learn to talk as human beings do, that is, use words to express ideas. Most of the intelligent things animals do is a result of inheriting certain patterns of behaviour. This works in Special situations, but when you change the situation the animal usually does not know how to deal with it. The other reason animals behave "intelligently" is that they go through a trial-and-error method of learning. Neither of these two ways of "thinking" can ever lead to talking. Talking means the use of words as symbols. The word stands for an idea or a thing it is a symbol of it. And animals do not have the ability to deal with symbols. Their minds cannot use combinations of symbols the same way human beings do. When we study how a child learns to say "Mama", we can see how complicated learning to talk really is. First the baby learns to recognize mother by seeing her again and again. As soon as the child recognizes her, the mother keeps pointing to herself and saying "Mama" at the same time. Gradually the infant hears the sound "Mama". After a while, the baby remembers this sound, and now it understands the word "Mama". Later on, the child makes a connection between the appearance of mother and the sound "Mama", and it identifies her. Now the mother shows the child how to say the word with its mouth, The baby imitates her and reaches the stage of word formation. It keeps on trying to say the word until certain muscles begin to work. Finally the day comes when everything is ready for talking. The baby sees the mother, recognizes her, remembers the word, forms the word, starts the right muscles working, and says "Mama" and the language develop that way, (Herman & Forestell, 1985).
However, Language since the time it was invented, there is no existing record to date back the origin of language and has always been considered a unique human trait that sets us apart from the rest of the species. The majority of people have considered the word “language” as a mere shorthand for human language, or more explicitly “adult human language. However, there has been a popular, a rather radical disagreement about the specificity of language. Quite a number of researchers and scholars have conducted experiments and studies to prove or disapprove the much contested debate on language. One would present several arguments that would support the Orthodox belief that language is one of the main hallmarks that distinguishes humans from animals.

If language is defined as “a system of arbitrary vocal symbols used by an individual or a group to interact and communicate,” it is clear that the human language has a lot of features or several properties of language that generally cannot be found in animal communication. First is arbitrariness, if language therefore is arbitrary, as popularly explained by Saussure, there is no connection between the linguistic form and the meaning. Almost all the words we used do not posses an obvious relationship between their sound/sign and their meaning except perhaps for onomatopoeic expressions. Let us take for example the word phone. There is nothing “phony” about a phone. Several research observations proved that non human communication system is quite different from human language. The latter is undeniably infinite while the former is limited to a series of sounds or movements that convey a target meaning. The sounds they make could mean that they sense danger, hunger, or for the purpose of attracting the opposite sex as a possible mate. On the contrary, human language has no limit to the number of expressions or words and even until now in our modern era, humans are continually inventing and reinventing the way they communicate, (Herman & Forestell, 1985).
As mentioned above, language is a series of vocal symbols. In the history of humankind, we are probably the only specie that spends most of its time talking. Though we cannot deny the existence of vocal communication among animals, it is but important to note that there is no more complex and composite as the human vocal symbols. Compared to animals, there exists a variation and inflection on the way we speak. Alterations are made depending on the situation or feeling of the speaker, (Herman & Forestell, 1985). We can modulate, change the tone or pitch, even the speed to suit our particular whim at a particular period or time. How about the animals that were claimed to have successfully learned not only to randomly imitate the exact sound of a human language but also to associate it with the corresponding meaning? Well, these experiments had been done in a uniform method that is “iteration” which involves repeating an action or object an arbitrary number of times. Classic example would be teaching a parrot to say “magandang umaga” everytime you open the door. It’s just as good as a simple conditioning (Pavlov: dogs salivating at the sound of the bell). The question is do they understand what they’re doing? Those animals (usually chimpz) that were able to develop or acquire such vocal skills are nonetheless special cases. However, comparing them to the development of a human child, it is quite apparent that human has the more innate ability to naturally acquire the faculty of language in or out of a controlled environment (Herman & Forestell, 1985).

Language for us is a means to effectively communicate and interact in our individual speech community. This is one trait that is analogous to most animal communities. Animals have displayed certain behaviors that are for the sole purpose of conveying messages or symbols to the other members of their pack, thus enabling them to survive. But this doesn’t prove that they have the ability to expand upon the grammatical rule in general sense or fully understand the changes in the meaning of the words. Humans are gifted with a unique imagination, manifesting itself even in language wherein we continually create new expressions (slang) and even hypothetical concepts (Santa Clause, Superman and the likes) which is absent in animals. This further proves that humans have a more conscious control over their faculty of language. It is conclusively more than a tool used for survival. Human language has and is constantly flowing and evolving parallel to the evolution of man.

There are many other arguments that would further support this views on the specificity of language to humans. However, I have just limited my points around the given and acknowledged meaning of language which I think is the most fundamental basis at which we can distinguish the big difference of human language and animal communication. It seems very unlikely for another species to learn or interpret signals or symbols of another (I have not yet heard of a chicken able to talk in “mutton”). I must say that the attention being given to the analysis of animal communication to classify it as a “true language” is but a biased effort of a number of researchers and an over interpretation of the similarities and shared pre-linguistic ability between some animals and humans.
In conclusion, it is clear that over a few million years the concept of communication has evolved to such a specific state that we now posses the ability to intelligently speak and interpret thoughts and feelings as well as manipulate the thoughts and feelings of others through words. Language is a service possessed only by human beings. Its purpose however, that of communication, is an activity in which all species engage. In some way, all creatures communicate, not by words or facial expressions, but in their own way these creatures convey their desires and emotions to other members of their species. The type of communication facilitated is species specific, such as language to humans and sonar to dolphins. Many people may not relate the concept of human language to animals but it is merely a qualitative difference between the two species. Evolutions do not result out of nothing, therefore human language had to evolve from some concept of communication. All species communicate but humans are the only species to do so through language. Creole languages form an unusually direct expression of a species specific biological characteristic, a capacity to recreate language in the absence of any specific model from which the properties of language could be ‘learned’ in the ways we normally learn things.

Bickerton, D. 1990. Lqanguage & species. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press,
Gardner, B.T., & Gardner, R.A. (1975). Evidence for sentence constituents in the early utterances of child and chimpanzee. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 104, 244-267.
Gardner R. Allen and Gardner Beatrice T. (1980) Comparative psychology and language acquisition. In Thomas A. Sebok and Jean-Umiker-Sebok (eds.): Speaking of Apes: A Critical Anthology of Two-Way Communication with Man. New York: Plenum Press, pp. 287-329.
Goodall, J. (1964). Tool Using and Aimed Throwing in a Community of Free-Living Chimpanzees, Nature, 201, 1264-1266.
Hayes, C. (1951). The Ape in Our House. New York: Harper & Row.
Herman, L. M. & Forestell, P. H. (1985). Reporting presence or absence of named objects by a language-trained dolphin. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 9, 667-691.
Kako, E. (1999). Elements of syntax in the systems of three language-trained animals. Animal Learning & Behavior, 27, 1-14.
Kellogg, W.N., & Kellogg, L.A. (1933). The ape and the child. New York: Whittlesey House (McGraw-Hill).
Patterson, F., and Linden, E. (1981) The Education of Koko. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
Pinker, S. (1994). The language instinct: how the mind creates language. New York: William Morrow & Co.
Roitblat, H.R., Herman, L.M. & Nachtigall, P.E. (Eds.)(1993). Language and Communication: Comparative Perspectives, 299-308. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Rumbaugh Duane M. (1980) Language behavior of apes. In Thomas A. Sebok and Jean-Umiker-Sebok(eds.): Speaking of Apes: A Critical Anthology of Two- Way Communication with Man. New York: Plenum Press, pp. 231-259.
Sayigh, L.S., Tyack, P.L., Wells, R.S. & Scott, M.D. (1990). Signature whistles of free-ranging bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus): stability and mother-offspring comparisons. Behavioural Ecology and Sociobiology, 247-260.

No comments:

Post a Comment