Animal Communication & Language

Instructor: Lisa Roundy

Lisa has taught at all levels from kindergarten to college and has a master's degree in human relations.

In this lesson we will discuss the difference between communication and language, examine whether animals have the capacity for language, and look at examples of animal communication.

Language vs. Communication

You may have heard someone saying that the birds chirping outside your window in the morning are talking to each other. Maybe you have seen a mother cow calling for her calf. These examples illustrate why a person might think non-human animals have language. Do you think that animals have language?

Do you think animals use language?
animal communication

Many people use the terms communication and language interchangeably because they seem like the same thing. However, they are actually two different concepts. Communication is the expression of information to another and language is the ability to put words together in such as way that they make grammatical sentences. Does understanding the difference between the two ideas change your answer to the question of whether or not animals have language?

Human and Animal Differences

Humans are different from other animals. One of these differences can be found in the use of language. A fundamental difference exists in the way information is presented to communicate and the way it is organized and presented in the expression of language. For example, a chimpanzee could learn the words 'apple' and 'hungry' and use them appropriately in sign language to convey an idea. However, it could not learn to express this idea as, 'I see an apple and I would like to eat it'. These extra words would make no sense to the chimp, but they help humans process the information more clearly. In other words, an animal can communicate but only humans use language in its true sense.

Types of Animal Communication

They may not be able to master language, but all animals communicate, or intentionally transmit information to each other. In fact, the ability to communicate effectively is essential to their survival. This communication can take on a variety of forms such as:

  • Vocalizations - such as a dog growling at another dog to display aggression, or bird calls to maintain territory, attract a mate, or stay with a group

A dog showing aggression.
animal communication

  • Non-vocal noises - such as a dolphin slapping its tail on the water's surface to warn other dolphins of danger, or a rabbit thumping its hind foot to signal danger

Dolphins warn others by slapping their tail on the water.
animal communication

  • Smell - such as a male lion scent marking its territory to tell other male lions to stay away

A lion marks his territory by scent.
animal communication

  • Color - such as a Humboldt squid flashing bioluminescent colors to send signals to other squid, or an octopus changing color (and texture!) to indicate irritation or fear.

A squid changes color to communicate.
animal communication

  • Visual displays - such as a peacock displaying its tail feathers and dancing to attract a mate, or the appropriately named peacock spider who also has an elaborate dance and colorful display to impress females.

A male peacock displays its tail feathers to impress a female.
animal communication

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