• Question: Do think that animals will ever be able to fully understand and possibly even speak the human language?

    Asked by mbale25 to Suzanne, Nadine, Daniel, Phillip on 8 Jan 2018. This question was also asked by ruby123, 17jwalker.
    • Photo: Nadine Lavan

      Nadine Lavan answered on 8 Jan 2018:

      I would say probably not for a long time (who knows though what evolution will come up with in a few million years!). There have been attempts to teach primates, who are our closest ancestors in evolutionary terms, how to use human language. Kanzi, a bonobo and Koko, a gorilla are famous examples. Researchers have tried to teach Kanzi a language with a keyboard with many different symbols on it and Koko was taught sign language. These two primates certainly have learnt a lot of different signals and seem to be using them a lot (to make demands about food or toys) but there are doubts if they are using language in a creative way, through making up new and never heard before messages – and that’s one of the hallmarks of human language use.

      As for speaking the human language, there are a lot of anatomical constraints: human vocal tracts differ in a number of ways from the vocal tracts of even our closest ancestors. We, for example, have a lot more control over what we do in our voice box (or larynx) than other primates. We also seem to have a lot of space in our mouth due to a domed palate – that is thought to allow us to articulate all the different speech sounds with our tongue (try say ‘t’ versus ‘k’ – your tongue should move quite a bit to produce these two sounds!). Most other animal don’t have this much space available in their mouth, which could potentially stop them from producing human-like noises.

    • Photo: Daniel Mills

      Daniel Mills answered on 10 Jan 2018:

      I don’t think so, our brains are very different and we are all adapted to our own needs. Different species fit into different niches. Indeed as humans we sometimes struggle to understand each other