Humans have dreamed of being able to speak to animals for a long time. From ancient folktales to Dr. Dolittle, we’ve imagined scenarios in which we communed with the animals around us. When we talk to our pets or converse with ducks in the park, it can feel like maybe, just maybe, the line that divides humans and animals is blurrier than we thought. Maybe animals and language aren’t completely incompatible.
Over the past few decades, several researchers have looked into crossing the barrier between animals and language. One big question still remains: which animal’s language could humans feasibly crack first? We explored recent studies to see how likely it is that we’ll be having conversations with any of these animals in the near future.
No, horses are definitely not going to be the first animals humans can understand. They appear at the top of this list solely because of a very important talking horse: Hans. In the early 1900s, a trainer and his horse Hans went around Berlin, Germany, showing off the horse’s “amazing” cognitive abilities. The horse could answer simple questions by tapping its hoof on the ground a certain number of times. Researchers later discovered, however, that the horse was responding to the trainer’s body language, not what was actually being said.
This gave birth to what researchers call the “Clever Hans” phenomenon, which is when any animal appears to understand language but is actually just using other cues to determine how to respond. It’s an important phenomenon to keep in mind whenever claims surface of talking animals, because animals can very often act like they understand even when they don’t.
Verdict: Not Possible At All
Humans are more connected to dogs than any other animal, so it may just be wishful thinking that we might one day be able to talk to them. But even without any scientific intervention, dogs do seem to understand humans. After all, we’re able to train them. Do dogs actually understand what we’re saying, or are they just responding to body cues and tone?
The answer, to a certain degree, is that dogs can indeed understand language. Dogs aren’t engaging in conversations, of course, but research has found that dogs truly understand some parts of human language when given commands, and they’re not just responding to body language or visual cues (so it’s not just another Clever Hans). Other studies have shown that dogs can differentiate between word tone and word meaning, which means that telling your dog it’s going to the vet with a happy tone of voice isn’t fooling anyone. With dogs, it’s very much a one-sided conversation, but their ability to understand us is still quite meaningful.
Verdict: A One-Way Conversation At Best
Bird songs are a fantastic source of linguistic information in nature. For example, biologists recently explored how certain birds can learn to understand “foreign” bird calls that indicate danger. Plus, it’s been found that there are birds that are better at understanding language and those that are worse. The bird that seems most likely to excel at language — at least human language — is the parrot.
For the most part, parrot speech is merely mimicry. Parrots, like many other bird species, imitate the sounds they hear around them. When they’re around birds, they copy other birds, and when they’re around humans, they copy humans. Therefore, most parrots don’t show any signs that they actually understand the words they’re saying. There is some evidence that parrots could have real language ability, however.
There are a few parrots that have shown signs of understanding language. The most famous is Irene Pepperberg’s parrot Alex. Pepperberg specifically trained Alex to understand language, and at the time of Alex’s death in 2007, Pepperberg said he knew about 100 words and could even count up to the number eight. There are parrots who have spoken more words; the famous parrot performer Einstein had a 200-word lexicon, but he is definitely a Clever Hans, whereas Alex might not be. Alex stands out because he was taught language systematically, and it’s alleged he actually understood what was being said rather than simply parroting it back (pun intended). Still, the research is far from conclusive, and more studies would need to be done to prove anything.
Verdict: Possible, But Unlikely
Gorillas and humans go way back. All the way back to our common ancestor who lived 10 million years ago, in fact. Because gorillas and humans are so close on the primate family tree, it would make sense that they would be the first animals that humans could actually talk to. It’s certainly not a sure thing, though.
The most famous gorilla with language ability is Koko, who gained fame for allegedly being able to use sign language. Her handlers said she knew over 1,000 signs and showed clear evidence that there was a true understanding of language, rather than just mirroring other people’s motions. Koko’s main handler Penny Patterson worked with Koko for decades, developing her language skills and establishing the Gorilla Foundation to advance the research.
Much of the media takes Koko’s accomplishments as a given, but Koko has been accused by many people of being a Clever Hans. Only a small group of people have actually been allowed to research Koko’s abilities, leading outside researchers to accuse the Gorilla Foundation of exaggerating the results. The foundation’s reputation also wasn’t helped when many people resigned in 2012, alleging Koko was not properly being looked after. Koko died in 2018 at the age of 46, and the occasion once again brought up questions as to how much language she actually knew.
Koko’s abilities could be backed up by studies demonstrating linguistic promise in other apes and chimps, but there is little scientific consensus on whether any of them understood human language. Until there’s further peer-reviewed research, it’s hard to know exactly how close we really are to talking to a gorilla.
Verdict: Very Possible, But Needs More Research
Thanks to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, we all know dolphins are some of the most intelligent animals on Earth. And while they aren’t literally singing “So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish,” dolphins have demonstrated a certain linguistic prowess. Their clicks and whistles are distinctive, and biologists are confident that dolphins do have a language system we can one day understand. The only problem is that there’s not a lot of data backing this up so far.
Denise Herzing is a biologist who has been studying dolphins for over 30 years, and she has done a lot to decode their communication patterns. In a TED Talk from 2013, she broke down the various kinds of speech dolphins use, creating a convincing argument that dolphin language is analogous to human language in many ways. Some of the most apparent examples of dolphin language are the use of names, vocalizing aggression and courting mates. Even more exciting, Herzing’s team has been able to communicate with the dolphins using machines that imitate dolphin noises.
Biologists are wary of overstating the linguistic ability of dolphins, however. In 2016, Russian researchers claimed to have recorded wild dolphins having a conversation with each other, but other biologists — including Herzing — rebuked these findings. Despite some promising developments within research environments, Herzing says that so far, there has been no evidence showing dolphins using anything like language in the wild.
People are still optimistic though, including Swedish linguistic startup Gavagai GB, which declared it would crack dolphin language using artificial intelligence by 2021. Once again, it’s a matter of waiting at this point to find out how good at communicating these animals are. But there’s hope yet that we might someday speak with other creatures, and that’s enough to keep the research going.
Verdict: The Most Likely On The List, But Evidence Is Still Inconclusive