Many scholars look to language as one of the most obvious ways in which humans are evolutionarily superior to the animal kingdom. This assertion has led scientists to study the particulars of this gap that separates us from the animals.
Talking animals has been a hugely popular fixation of popular culture from Mr. Ed to Beverly Hills Chihuahua and beyond. But could it really happen? Although the idea of animals being able to communicate on the same level as humans is dubious at best, pet owners are making strides in the field of teaching animals language. Parrots obviously are the first to come to mind, but they only appear to be conversing by “parroting” back what they hear humans say. Do they really understand a word they are saying? Probably not.
Anyone who has said the word “walk” around their dog knows that dogs are able to understand some language. But how many words can they really learn? A border collie named Chaser, though she can only bark, has been taught to understand 1,022 nouns. That means she can fetch 1,022 different objects when asked for them by name.
Dogs do not learn language in the same way as humans. Chaser learned her words through sheer repetition, and cannot pick up context clues the same way that young children can. Her master’s next step will be to try teaching her grammar. It remains to be determined whether it is really the words or some other complex cues Chaser is picking up on from her master that lead to her apparent language skill.
Scientists have studied other species with complex communication systems, such as dolphins and prairie dogs, but so far the human language system reigns supreme. This is due to our relative brainpower but also to the variety of sounds that we can make.