• Do animals understand language?

    By Nicola Pitchford -

  • 12

In her adventures in Wonderland, Alice talks to many different creatures including a rabbit, a mouse, a caterpillar, a dodo, a lizard, a cat and others. But how can they understand her? Does your pet understand you?

John Russell, 'Girl and Cat', 1791

  • Girl and Cat, 1791
  • John Russell
  • © Tate

The question of whether or not animals have language has puzzled scientists for decades. Through observing animal behaviour it seems that animals communicate with each other. For example, the song of birds, the changing colour of chameleons, and the dance of bees. But is this really language?

Scientists have tried to teach language, such as sign, to our closest relatives in the animal kingdom – the great apes, including chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orang-utans. Some could learn the signs for around 250 words. One remarkable bonobo could even understand new commands he had not heard before which were up to eight words long. But is language just about vocabulary?

Although apes can learn the meaning of words scientists doubt they can learn the rules of grammar. These rules allow humans to create an infinite number of novel sentences by combining words in a unique way.  How many sentences can you make out of the following words?

monkey
above
is
the
giraffe
the

Let me know in the comments…

Discussion Area

  1. this is the most amazing learning website ever!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Evie - November 17, 2011

  2. That Dr Pitchford really knows her stuff. I didn’t know the brain was so awesome. I now realise how special we are…I always thoght speaking was easy but I was worng

    Tim - November 26, 2011

  3. so,animals have language or no, I’m soooooooooo confused?
    HELP

    dina - December 17, 2011

  4. Pingback: Welcome to your Wondermind « KUNST x TECHNIEK

  5. Nooooo!!!!!!!!

    sophie+sharon - February 20, 2012

  6. omg

    haha - February 24, 2012

  7. The monkey is above the giraffe.
    The giraffe is above the monkey.
    Is the monkey above the giraffe?
    Is the giraffe above the monkey?

    Saskia Lewis - March 10, 2012

  8. Yes!

    Saskia Lewis - March 10, 2012

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  10. Above the x is the x

    Tyruss1123 - November 14, 2012

  11. The Monkey = x
    The Giraffe = y

    X is above y.
    Y is above x.
    Is x above y?
    Is y above x?

    Rage. - December 7, 2012

  12. The giraffe is above the monkey.
    The monkey is above the giraffe.
    Above the monkey is the giraffe.
    Above the giraffe is the monkey.
    Is the giraffe above the monkey?
    Is the monkey above the giraffe?

    Grace - March 5, 2013