Do Animals Have Language?

People have always yearned to be able to “talk” to animals, but scientists have traditionally seen language as a uniquely human attribute. However, the more scientists study animal communication, the more they come away convinced that our language capabilities aren’t that special after all.

In the most recent of these studies, scientists at the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis in Knoxville, Tennessee analyzed recordings of vocalizations from several different species, ranging from birds like finches and chickadees to whales and orangutans.

They expected the calls to follow what is called the Markov process, which limits their complexity, in contrast to the flexibility of human language. As head scientist Dr Arik Kershenbaum explained to the Washington Post:

“A Markov process is where you have a sequence of numbers or letters or notes, and the probability of any particular note depends only on the few notes that have come before. What makes human language special is that there’s no finite limit as to what comes next.”

Surprisingly, none of the animal calls analyzed in the study fit the Markovian hypothesis.  In fact, five of the seven species used vocalizations that matched more complex statistical models that are closer to human speech.

Does that mean that animals do have language in the same sense that we do? Not necessarily. But according to Kershenbaum, it does mean we may be able to learn more about the origin of human speech by studying animal vocalizations. As he explained to the Evening Telegraph,

“Language is the biggest difference that separates humans from animals evolutionarily, but multiple studies are finding more and more stepping stones that seem to bridge this gap. Uncovering the process underlying vocal sequence generation in animals may be critical to our understanding of the origin of language.”

If you could choose one animal to talk to, what would it be? And what would you talk about? Let us know in the comments!

Photo Credit:  AttributionShare Alike Some rights reserved by Liam Quinn

language of science

The Language of Science: Lost in Translation

These days, most scientific work is done in English. But why is English the “language of science” when brilliant scientists come from all corners of the globe? And does it matter?

We like to think that science transcends language. After all, experiments are experiments and data is data, right?

Actually, language and translation have always been vital to the progression of science. The English language’s current dominance is relatively new, and has had both positive and negative effects.

How English Won Out As the Language of Science


Ibn al-Haytham, considered the inventor of the scientific method.

The first scientists most definitely did not speak English, or even Latin or Greek. They spoke the languages of ancient Egypt, ancient Mesopotamia, and ancient China. Then came the ancient Greeks and Romans. Their work was later translated by medieval Islamic scientists and scholars, who in turn went on to produce their own impressive discoveries.

By the Renaissance, translators had translated most of the Arabic and Greek texts into Latin, allowing European scholars to build on the knowledge they contained.  Read more

Human Language Gene Helps Mice Learn

Creepy but cool: Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have inserted the “human language gene” into mice. The result:

Okay, not really. But the gene-spliced mice were able to navigate certain types of mazes faster than their un-enhanced counterparts.  So what does this tell us about how humans developed language?

Mice genetically engineered to carry the human version of the Fox2P gene learned to navigate a maze to find chocolate in only 7 days, compared to the 11 days it took regular mice. The maze was set up to encourage the mice to use two types of memory: procedural memory, which relies on conscious decisions using navigational cues like landmarks, and procedural memory, which relies on routine habits.

The mice with the humanized Fox2P gene only learned faster than regular mice when they were able to use both types of memory. In mazes that only allowed one type of learning, the two groups of mice performed the same. MIT professor Ann Graybiel, a senior author of the study, told MIT News that the results suggest the Fox2P gene helps enable us to use language by learning new words and then forming unconscious, routine associations with the objects they describe.

In the MIT News press release, Graybiel said:

 “This really is an important brick in the wall saying that the form of the gene that allowed us to speak may have something to do with a special kind of learning, which takes us from having to make conscious associations in order to act to a nearly automatic-pilot way of acting based on the cues around us.”

The FOX2P gene isn’t the only gene that affects language function, but it’s one of the most well-known. It was discovered in the 1990s in family with severe inherited speech and language issues.

There is no word yet as to whether the “humanized” Fox2P mice have begun making plans for world domination, but presumably it’s only a matter of time.

Photo Credit: AttributionShare Alike Some rights reserved by theglobalpanorama

A Language Learning Pill?

Does learning a language while you sleep sound like too much work? One scientist is predicting that some time within the next 30 years, all you’ll have to do is take a pill to become instantly fluent.

Nicholas Negroponte, an architect and futurist who founded MIT’s Media Lab, made the prediction in a TED Talk released in July. Negroponte is the founder of the One Laptop Per Child program, which provides children in developing countries access to inexpensive laptop computers. He is famous for having predicted a host of technologies that we now take for granted, like WiFi and the touchscreen.

As quoted in the Daily Mail, here’s how Negroponte sees the future of language learning (and literature classes):

‘You’re going to swallow a pill and know English. You’re going to swallow a pill and know Shakespeare.’

‘And the way to do it is through the bloodstream. So once it’s [the information in the pill] in your bloodstream, it basically goes through and gets into the brain…and the different pieces get deposited in the right places.’

That seems like it would be a difficult feat to accomplish. Learning a language is about more than just memorizing vocabulary lists and verb conjugations, after all.  Speaking a second language alters your brain in a number of different ways, such as helping to protect against Alzheimer’s disease and helping toddlers to better focus their attention. Would learning a language from a pill have the same effects?

So far, the closest thing we have to a language learning pill is a drug called valproic acid. It’s a mood-stabilizing drug that has shown promise in making it possible for adults to learn to have perfect pitch, a skill that is usually impossible to learn after a certain age. So, in theory it could make it easier for adults to pick up another language if they do the work to learn it, just as infants and toddlers have an easier time learning multiple languages.  

Also, as a former English Lit major, I have to say that I find the idea of taking a pill and “knowing Shakespeare” almost offensive. It’s like reading the Cliffs Notes-you might understand the plot but you haven’t experienced the art.

Do you think language learning in pill form will be possible one day? Let us know in the comments!

Photo credits: Attribution Some rights reserved by Rod Senna

Enter the Geek World

I think the best way to start this post is to tell a bit more about my high school experience as I believe I was the not-perfect-but-close incarnation of what we call affectionately a geek, nerd or dork according to your preference. Of course, at the time, I thought I was pretty cool, not as popular as the footballers or cheerleaders that you can see in all American movies but still. I was only wearing Quicksilver (you know the brand!) and never giving up on Vans for my feet, pretending to be part of the skaters crew, or with lot of imagination, the surfers one. Unfortunately, I never had any talent whatsoever to ride a board…maybe with a lot of practice, I could do it but at this time, I was more into watching other people do it than actually try! So, yeah, I wasn’t going to become Tony Hawk or Kelly Slater anytime soon.

Despite this, I still had a bunch of friends, well if you consider that 2 is a “bunch” of course, though it’s more than 1 by definition. For my defence, it was hard to make friends in Maths or Physics classes because there were only so many girls in it. Concerning the guys, well, I didn’t want to end up in Maths or Chest clubs just yet, my dad already set up a one-member-only-club for me anyway every Saturday morning, so I thought it was too much commitment to join 2. Speaking of my dad, he is part of the reason of my non-social life in high school as I was not allowed to do anything really except working on my Maths and Physics problems, though, at rare occasions, I had the huge chance to learn the subject in “real” when he needed me to help him to sort out the electricity of our house. Read more

Scientific Translation: A Lost Art?

Despite the popular stereotype of the mad scientist working alone in his lab, science is a collaborative effort.  The ability to share research and knowledge with other scientists is vital.  As Isaac Newton once wrote, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” But what if those “giants” don’t speak your language?

In fact, translators have historically been an important part of the scientific community, translating, passing on and preserving knowledge from advanced civilizations like ancient Greece and Rome, ancient China and from the Islamic Golden Age.  But these days, according to The Times Higher Education, there are not enough translation resources to go around and language barriers are hampering scientists’ ability to share knowledge.

For scientists from non-English-speaking countries, translating their work into English is essential. However, to do this well, you need a translator who is both fluent in both languages and has some understanding of the nature of the work itself. As the Times explains:

“In an effort to disseminate their work, many foreign scientists spend precious research funds on private translation services. But standard translators may not understand the science, the structure of scientific papers or the technical language. The only alternative is to rely on bilingual colleagues to provide translation services as a favour.”

What’s the solution? The Times suggests that universities and other research institutions make translation more of a priority from the beginning, instead of putting the burden on individual scientists:

 “We suggest that university departments in non-anglophone countries could hire professional translators with a science background, just as they hire statisticians and technical specialists.”

It’s not just non-English speakers who need to step up their game. The Times points out that even English language research can benefit from translation:

Much less appreciated is the potentially important role of translators in universities in English-speaking countries. Translating research into any of the world’s main languages (Mandarin, Spanish, Portuguese or French) could boost a paper’s citation rate…The translation of papers into different languages should allow more rapid accumulation of data supporting or refuting hypotheses and increase knowledge sharing in applied areas, such as agronomy or conservation, where, in some countries, English-language publishing and citation is not currently pursued.”

Any other ideas to make it easier for scientists to get their work translated? Share them in the comments!

Photo credit: Attribution Some rights reserved by Horia Varlan