Communicating With Dolphins: Will Humans Learn Their Language?

What we already know about dolphin language, and what we hope to learn with the help of technology.
dolphin jumping out of water dolphin language

Between aquarium shows and swimming alongside them on vacation, it’s pretty clear that humans have a fascination with dolphins. Is it because of their supposed intellect (more on that later)? Or because of their shiny, smooth skin? Or maybe because of the grace with which they glide through the water? All those things are great, but dolphin language is what should fascinate us the most.

Dolphins have been proven to have some sort of language system, which they use to chat with one another. But imagine if humans could learn dolphin language and use it for interspecies communication. How complex is dolphin language? Can we even call it “language”? And, most importantly, will we ever be able to learn it? Let’s dive in (sorry) and find out.

Are Dolphins Really The Smartest Animals?

There’s a fairly common belief that dolphins are the smartest non-human animals, or at least near the top of the intelligence chain, but it turns out that may not actually be true. Dolphins do have relatively large brains; four to five times larger, relative to their body size, than the average animal their size. Their human-like skills when it comes to communication suggest a certain level of intelligence, too. That’s not quite the full picture, though. 

While researchers originally said dolphins can recognize themselves in a mirror, dissenting studies found that they behave in the same manner when the mirror isn’t there.

Then there’s the language component, which we’ll explore further in the next section. Scientists often point to this ability to communicate using complex vocalizations as evidence of dolphins’ intelligence, and it does place them among the smarter species. But not necessarily the smartest. A number of other animals, such as dogs, primates and sea lions also use specific vocalizations to communicate.

So the jury’s still out on where dolphins rank on the intelligence scale, but dolphin language is definitely worth researching. And many scientists have done just that.

Fact Vs. Fiction: What We Know About Dolphin Language

Denise Herzing, who has been studying dolphins in the wild for over 30 years, says they use whistles, clicks, buzzing and pulsing sounds to communicate with each other. 

According to Herzing, dolphins have a “signature whistle” that is specific to each individual dolphin, kind of like a name. There are clicks used for hunting and feeding, buzzes used for social interaction and mating, and “burst-pulsed sounds” used when fighting. Herzing describes one particularly cool communication technique dolphins use, which is synchronizing their sounds and behavior to scare sharks away. 

A study by researchers at St. Petersburg Polytechnic University used equipment to measure the acoustic signals of bottlenose dolphins in the Black Sea. The study registered dolphin pulses and sets of pulses as words and sentences and concluded that because dolphin language “exhibits all the design features present in the human spoken language, this indicates a high level of intelligence and consciousness in dolphins, and their language can be ostensibly considered a highly developed spoken language, akin to the human language.”

This conclusion makes a very strong claim about dolphin communication, but other scientists — including Herzing — disagree with the findings and said the experiment was flawed in its design. Richard Connor, a marine biologist at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, told National Geographic of the study, “It is complete bull, and you can quote me.”

Herzing says there have been some promising developments in dolphin research, but that as of yet, there is no evidence of a so-called dolphin language used in the wild. However, her team has been able to successfully communicate with dolphins uses machines that imitate the sounds they make.

The Future of Human-Dolphin Communications

Where do we go from here in the quest for dolphin language insights? Like many puzzles we face these days, it’s being tackled using artificial intelligence. 

A Swedish language startup called Gavagai AB hopes to use AI to decode the language of dolphins. Working with researchers at KTH Royal Institute of Technology, the company is collecting data from recordings of dolphins and wants to crack their language by 2021, with the goal of eventually being able to reverse engineer a way for humans to translate their own language into dolphin speak. This would effectively facilitate interspecies communication for the very first time.

It’s a lofty goal, but perhaps one day we won’t just swim with dolphins — we’ll chat with them, too.

While you wait for the dolphins, learn a human language.
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