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Published: 23rd March, 2015 Last Edited: 23rd March, 2015
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Language is commonly described as a communication tool which allows humans to express their feelings, thoughts and helps them to understand the world. It defines the cultural background of a particular society and separates human beings from other animals. Therefore, human language is believed to be a distinguishing factor, which makes our species unique (Anderson, 2004). It is important to notice that all the other animals also communicate by using different structures of communication systems that are innate (Hirshon, date unknown). Animal communication lacks creativity, flexibility and is not as complex as human communication. This essay will discuss the main features that distinguish human language from the ways other animals communicate, its origins and finally it will look at different attempts to teach animals to acquire human language. The essay concludes that no animal is able to create complex sentences in a language, owing to its different anatomy of vocal tracts and inability to understand the meaning of words.
The scientists report that there are over 6,900 distinct languages in the modern world. Nevertheless, David Lightfoot, a linguist at Georgetown University in Washington, points out that because of human ability to speak and our anatomy of the vocal apparatus, only one language should be considered: human language (Hirshon, date unknown). It is in organized and complex form, structured by different sets of grammatical rules. Language is as important as breathing. It helps human beings to socialise, learn about past cultures and progenitors, develop themselves and pass the knowledge through the next generations. In fact, it is crucially important for speakers to have a knowledge of the grammar of a spoken language.
As far as the nature of language is concerned, many philosophers and scientists have debated this question for a long time, presenting contrasting ideas and concepts. Although a number of different theories have been displayed so far, there is still no direct evidence which tells us how the language has originated. It is certain that divine theory is one of the oldest thesis, suggesting the language as the gift of the God to mankind. Judeo Christians believe that Adam was given the power to name all the things that the world consists of. God communicated with the first people in a language that was easily understood by their brains (Yule, 2010). In terms of divine creation, many experiments have been carried out since the Ancient Times. For instance, an Egyptian pharaoh, Psammetichus, decided to place two infants in the mountains, isolating them from society. They were only in close contact to mute servants. Surprisingly, after several years they were able to say a word meaning 'bread' in a language which had not existed for a long time. Another interesting examination was carried out by James IV of Scotland thousands years after Psammetichus. Indeed, he repeated the same experiment, getting significant results: isolated children were capable of speaking Hebrew. Therefore, James IV formulated a thesis that Hebrew was the language Adam and Eve used in order to communicate in Eden (Fromkin, Rodman and Hyans, 2003).
On the contrary to divine source, another important thesis of this issue is evolutionary development. Many scientists suggest that the language has originated by the evolution of mankind. It resulted in the development of the speech production and the perception apparatus (Fromkin, Rodman and Hyans, 2003). Stephen Jay Gould (1994), as cited by Fromkin, Rodman and Hyans (2003, p.60), said that the language progressed 'step by step and is such an integrated "all or none" structure'. It is very probable that the brain expanded its size, which enabled the processing of different kinds of things. Thus, the evolution of human language must have been a long - lasting movement. The evolutionary thesis also claims that the development of human language was linked to the alterations in the brain and nervous system. However, when it comes to vocal tracts, there is no doubt that some species, such as talking parrots and mynah birds, have also experienced the development of vocal apparatus. As a result, these animals are able to distinguish different sound patterns, but they cannot acquire human language. It may be the case that vocal tracts are not so necessary in terms of human language development (Fromkin, Rodman and Hyans, 2003).
Another aspect of scientific research is the role of the brain lateralization (a concept, suggesting that the two halves of the brain`s cortex are responsible for different functions), which is closely related to the tool-making source. Yule (2010) indicates that making tools by early humans had a great influence on the development of the language since functions, controlling both speaking and object manipulation, are located in the left hemisphere of the brain.
An additional theory is the natural sound source. Its main idea is that natural sounds may have been imitated by unsophisticated words, which human ancestors heard around them. Certainly there are numbers of onomatopoeic words in every language, but considering, how most of the soundless things and abstract concepts in the world could not refer to natural sounds, make the scholars be sceptical about that theory (Yule, 2010).
The last possible thesis, discussed in the essay, will be the genetic source. In fact, many scientists believe that human offspring are born with an innate and unique capacity for language. In other words, any normal child, independently on its race, place of birth or economic heritage, is able to acquire a language to which he or she is exposed (Fromkin, Rodman and Hyans, 2003).
Regardless how much effort we make to discover the nature of human language, there is still no direct evidence that would prove any of the theories mentioned above. However, as Chomsky (1972, p.67, 68) says, 'human language appears to be a unique phenomenon, without significant analogue in the animal world'. Thus, what are the special features of the language which set humans apart from the other animals? The first uniqueness of human language is infinity capacity. Lightfoot claims that it enables humans to produce short sentences as well as long and complex ones. What is more, once the human learns a language, he is able to create new phrases and sentences. It is possible, only if he knows the rules of the grammar. In contrast, animals are not capable of this. Birds, for instance, can only sing on the basis of 'genetic programming', or what they have heard before (Hirshon, date unknown).
Furthermore, human beings are stimulus - independent, which means that they can talk about different situations without being determined to do so. This feature is closely related to displacement. Yule (2010) points out that human beings can talk about past, future and some imaginary situations. Animal communication is just a response in the immediate environment, connected with stimulus feeling of pain, the sight of predator or a desire of mate. A small exception for this are honeybees. In fact, they are able to inform the other bees about the location of nectar by performing a dance. However, it must be the most recent food source and they cannot relate to vertical distance.
Another difference between human and animal communication is creativity that enables human beings to produce new words, phrases and expressions. It is true that animals are born with a limited number of communication signals and cannot expand them in any way. As well as this, human language is culturally transmitted, acquired by close contact with a particular society and passed through generations, whereas animal communication represents biological transmission. It means that they are 'genetically programmed' to instinctively use a limited set of specific signals (Yule, 2010).
An important factor that separates human beings from other animals is also arbitrariness. Human language has signifier and signified. The meaning of particular words may change through the distance of time, but the point is that a word is a relationship between an image and its meaning (Anderson, 2004).
Human beings communicate with each other, using language as the main tool. However, the language should not only be considered as speech. Indeed, it also includes body gestures, verbal communication, facial expressions and sometimes specialised signs, especially when it comes to sign language that enables deaf people to communicate. It is a proven fact that these forms of communication are also common for animals. Although animals do not use sophisticated expressions and phrases to show their feelings and simply cannot talk in a way that humans do, they use different structures of communication systems that are innate. These systems usually involve distinct sounds, ranging from roars to whines, gestures and signals, such as alarm calls. It is said that communication allows animals to find food, avoid predators, mate as well as carry for their young (Castaldo, 1992).
Throughout the years, many scholars have tried to teach particular animal species to use human language as a tool of communication between humans and animals. Most of the projects involved apes that were taught by using different methods. Viki was one of the first apes that took part in the process of teaching the human language. The examination was carried out in the 1940s by scientist couple, Catherine and Keith Hayes, who raised Viki as if she had been their own child. The aim of this experiment was to make an ape say English words by shaping her mouth, while she was creating sounds. As a result, she could utter some poorly articulated words. In fact, the project brought a clear evidence that non-human primates are able to produce complex human sounds since they have different anatomy of vocal apparatus (Yule, 2010). The next investigation, aimed at discovering if an ape is able to learn one or more grammar rules, was carried out by Herbert Terrace in the 1970s. The psychologist involved an ape, called Nim Chimpsky, which was taught a version of American Sign Language. As Holmberg (date unknown) highlights, Terrace tried to compare Nim`s ability of communication with a two-year-old human child. He reached a conclusion that Nim acquired the basic linguistic knowledge, being able to use signs with their meanings and create new messages with regard to the rules he had learnt. However, Nim`s utterances were significantly different from that produced by human children. In fact, the ape constantly reversed the word order rules without any alteration in the meaning, whereas human children tend to follow the word order rules of adult language. Nim`s utterances were never longer than two words in terms of its meaning. Additional words, which seemed to be in an unplanned order, were always added to emphasise. Thus, Nim was able to learn many new words, but did not acquire grammar. He always created sentences that were related to requests for items of favours from humans (Holmberg, date unknown). Not only did the scholars teach apes to articulate human sounds correctly and use the sign language, but also to communicate using plastic shapes. Such an experiment was conducted by Ann and David Premack, who taught a chimpanzee, called Sarah, to use a set of plastic shapes and relate them to objects and actions. In the final stage she was able to request for some items, showing the understanding of the meaning of particular words (Yule, 2010).
Furthermore, when it comes to imitating human speech, scientists have proved that some parrots are able to produce noises, which may be heard as human sentences, but they cannot refer any word to its meaning. Anderson (2004) presents parrot Alex as an evidence for this thesis. Alex was raised by Irene Pepperberg and through the distance of time, he has learnt a vocabulary to name objects, shapes and numbers. Indeed, the communication system Alex has acquired could be characterised as 'an inventory of individually meaningful words rather than a set of holistically interpreted utterances' (Anderson, 2004, p.302). It cannot be said that the parrot has possessed human language as it could not understand the meaning of words it has uttered.
In terms of teaching animals to acquire human language, the research at the Dolphin Institute in Hawaii, involving bottlenose dolphins, should also be considered. Despite the fact dolphins lack vocal cords and cannot vocally imitate human language, the research has shown that they can understand the language semantically and syntactically (Herman, 2009).
This paper has discussed the reasons why the human language is so unique that it separates human beings from other animals. However, the language is just a tool used by humans to communicate and the communication is universal among all the species in the world. It should be noted that any of the scientific research, which has already been conducted, has not answered the question on the nature of human language, but it has been proved that no animal is able to possess human language. On the other hand, animal communicative skills may help humans to understand their behaviour. In the essay I focused on reviewing a number of different examinations on animals, aimed at teaching them to use human language. The question is if humans could possess the language of a particular animal species and would they be able to communicate with the animals using that language?