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Here’s How We Could Know if Animals Use Language

Michael Egnor


I have pointed out in several posts that animals are incapable of language. Animals communicate via signals, which are not language and have particular things, not abstract concepts, as their object. Claims by scientists that animals use grammar are nonsense as well. Birdsongs and the like are signals that have patterns, but patterns are not grammar. Animals have no language and are incapable of abstract thought.

A reasonable question can be asked: How could we know if an animal were capable of language? The utter lack of evidence for language in animals does not necessarily mean that animals don’t have language. Perhaps, some critics will argue, animals have language that we haven’t detected.

I have already discussed an experimental design that would be capable of detecting abstract thought in animals. An analogous approach could be used to detect real language — not just signaling — in animals.

The approach to identifying real language in animals is to exploit an ability that (as far as we know) only humans have: the ability to learn from language. Animals learn by experience with particular things, and as far as we know, they learn only by experience with particular things. Unlike humans, animals don’t learn abstractly.

A human being can learn abstractly by reading a text or by hearing a lesson conveyed by language. Your reading of this post is an example of abstract learning. You are not currently having any direct experience with animals, yet you are learning things about animals. Human beings can abstract themselves from particulars, acquire abstract information, and then apply the information abstractly acquired to new particulars.

Human beings can learn to assemble things by reading instructions, whereas animals can learn to assemble things only by being shown how to do it (or by instinct). An obvious example of the difference between abstract human learning and concrete animal learning is dam building. Humans learn to build dams via abstract education — lectures and textbooks in engineering schools. Beavers learn to build dams by instinct and by direct experience from other beavers. Beavers don’t consult textbooks or attend lectures.

The human ability to learn abstractly depends on language. If you aren’t shown how to do something, the only other way you can learn to do it is to be told how to do it. To be told how to do it, you need language. Language, unlike signaling, is an abstract mapping of words to concepts and things. Signaling, which is the only learning known to be done by animals, is concrete experience with particular things.

Dogs learn to perform tricks by being trained — by doing tricks and being rewarded for each trick accomplished — rather than by reading books or attending lectures about tricks. When a dog learns to sit by command, the dog responds to the signal “sit” after many training sessions in which sitting is rewarded with treats. When a schoolchild learns to sit on command by his teacher, he learns abstractly, by understanding the abstract meaning of the word “sit” and acting on his abstract understanding. Dogs lack language and learn only by signals. Children have language, and can learn abstractly.

If animals have language, they should be able to learn by language. For example, if birdsongs are language and not just signaling, birds should be able to learn new tasks by just hearing other birds’ songs, without any direct experience with the new skill (and without facilitation by instinct).

For example, if birdsong is language, a bird of one species should be able to learn new things, such as new techniques of nest building — just by hearing the song of a bird of a different species, without any practical training in the new technique of nest building. Obviously, no such linguistic learning has ever been detected in any animal.

Those who assert that animals have language need to demonstrate abstract learning via language in animals, and not just concrete learning by signaling. Only humans learn by textbook and by lecture. Only humans learn abstractly, without exposure to particulars. Only humans have language.

Photo credit: © Christin Lola — stock.adobe.com.

Michael Egnor

Senior Fellow, Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.