Multilinguish: Talking To Animals

A look at the stunning complexity of animal language and our ability to communicate with our non-human friends.
Multilinguish: Talking To Animals

Subscribe to Multilinguish on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Play, Spreaker, Stitcher or wherever you listen.

If you’re like us, you love the idea of being able to communicate with animals. But how realistic is this dream? Will the abilities of Dr. Doolittle and Eliza Thornberry ever jump off the screen and into the realm of real possibility?

In this episode of Multilinguish, we look at the surprisingly complex language animals use with each other and attempts to teach them human language. From prairie dogs to dolphins to Koko the Gorilla, we can learn a lot about animal intelligence (and about our own misconceptions) from animal language and the ways they communicate with us.

Multilinguish: Talking To Animals

In the first half of the episode, I interview Con Slobodchikoff, an expert on animal language and behavior and the director of the Animal Language Institute, who tells us about his work studying prairie dog language. We also discuss how artificial intelligence is key in the future of learning about animal communication, and he gives dog owners some practical advice.

Then, producer Thomas Devlin joins to tell us about Clever Hans the Horse, Koko the Gorilla, and Bunny the Dog — three cases of animal language hoaxes, or at least situations in which animals’ ability to communicate with humans has been called into question.

Show Notes

This episode was produced by me, Dylan Lyons, and edited by Brian Rosado. Production help from Thomas Devlin. Special thanks to Con Slobodchikoff for sharing his insights with us. You can learn more about his book Chasing Doctor Dolittle here. Jen Jordan is our executive producer. Our logo was designed by Ally Zhao.

Transcript

Dylan Lyons: From the language app Babbel, this is Multilinguish. I’m Dylan Lyons. And those sounds you heard at the beginning? Those were dolphins.

Dylan Lyons: The fascination with animals is a quintessentially human feeling. We love to watch cute animal videos, to keep them as pets, and to marvel at them in the wild. It seems like humans are especially drawn to animal language, whether that’s animals learning to communicate with us or developing their own languages to use with each other. We see this fascination in movies like Doctor Dolittle, cartoons like The Wild Thornberrys, and in viral headlines about swearing parrots at the zoo. But it’s not just pop culture. Researchers around the world have been studying animal behavior and language for decades, and have made some pretty incredible discoveries about how animals communicate.

Dylan Lyons: In this episode of Multilinguish, my conversation with one such researcher who tells us about some of his surprise findings about prairie dogs, gives some practical advice for dog learners, and explains why studying animal language is so important. Later, our very own Thomas Devlin joins to discuss some animal language hoaxes throughout history, and how they shape the way we should view animal language going forward.

Dylan Lyons: Before we get started, a reminder to please rate and review Multilinguish, and be sure to subscribe wherever you get podcasts.

Con Slobodchikoff: My name is Con Slobodchikoff. I am CEO of the company called Zoolingua, which is in the process of trying to develop a translator that will allow us to translate dog signals into English or any other language.

Dylan Lyons: Very cool. That’s great. I’m going to ask you more about that later, but first you’ve been studying animal languages for decades, researching about prairie dog communication, about dog behavior, among other topics. It’s really fascinating. I’m curious, how did you end up on this career path? I mean, where did your interest in animal language and behavior begin?

Con Slobodchikoff: When I started working with prairie dogs, nobody believed that prairie dogs could have a language. And, to tell you the truth, initially I really didn’t believe it either. But once I started doing experiments, at the back of my mind was the thought, “Experts could be wrong. They could have a language.”

Con Slobodchikoff: And so I started investigating, setting up experiments in the field with various situations to tease out the meaning of prairie dog vocalizations, and found that over time, over many, many years and many experiments and many statistical studies, that indeed prairie dogs do have a language. And in my book, Chasing Doctor Dolittle, I show that indeed experts are wrong, that animals do have languages and that we just haven’t come around to accepting that idea yet.

Dylan Lyons: I guess a larger question, and you spoke to this in part, but why do you think it’s important for humans to study animal languages and to try to understand how animals are communicating?

Con Slobodchikoff: Well, let me give you another story about this.

Dylan Lyons: Sure.

Con Slobodchikoff: When I talk about prairie dogs to groups of people, which I do on a regular basis, I always start off telling them that prairie dogs are endangered, that we have now approximately 1 to 2 percent of the prairie dogs that we had 120 years ago. Because people are poisoning prairie dogs, they’re shooting prairie dogs, prairie dogs are susceptible to disease. People build shopping centers and parking lots on prairie dog colonies because the colonies are on flat ground and they make perfect parking lots. People’s eyes glaze over because they’ve heard this story about lions, tigers, elephants, giraffes. You name it, they’ve heard this story.

Con Slobodchikoff: But when I tell people that prairie dogs can actually talk to each other, that they can convey meaningful information to each other about the size of the predator, the kind of predator, the color of the predator, the speed of travel of the predator, people’s eyes light up and they say, “Oh, well these animals really are kind of like us. Maybe we should really think our idea of poisoning these animals, maybe we should rethink our ideas about getting along with them.”

Con Slobodchikoff: And I think that this is a broader message, that once people recognize that animals have language and all that that implies, language implies that animals can think, language implies that animals can plan, language even implies that maybe they have hopes and dreams of their own, so that means that there is not a huge gulf between us and the rest of the animals the way that philosophers have said for a long time that there is. That we are actually closer to animals than we think. And with that, then maybe people should pay more attention to animals and emphasize more with animals and do nicer things with animals than people are currently doing.

Dylan Lyons: Right. So, this human-centered worldview, they need to see themselves in the animals or see some sort of relatable factors to feel that empathy. That’s so interesting. I think a lot of people who study animal languages make this distinction, and I believe you talked about it a bit in your book, between these efforts to teach animals humans language and then studying animals’ own forms of communication. Can you help make that distinction for the listener and the importance of the different sides there?

Con Slobodchikoff: Sure. A lot of people have spent a lot of their professional careers trying to teach animals humans languages, and this has had mixed results. Certainly, there have been animals, such as Koko the gorilla and Washoe the chimp and other animals, that have learned things like human sign language and can communicate to some extent in humans sign language. But the problem with that is that there are many skeptics around who say that, “Okay, well maybe these animals can do that, but it takes many, many training sessions to get them to actually make a sign in a reliable way. And how’s that really different from teaching your dog to sit on a command where you say, “Sit,” and the dog sits? It’s just essentially learning something and it doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s any sort of thought process going on with producing these kinds of signals.”

Dylan Lyons: Right.

Con Slobodchikoff: That is a problem for that work. Now, I don’t mean to disparage that work because the people who have been doing it have been doing a great job with that. But there’s always the doubt on the part of the skeptics that this isn’t really real, that this is something that’s just trained into the animals, and that the animals really don’t have the cognitive capacity to have language.

Con Slobodchikoff: Whereas, if you study natural animal languages, the kinds of languages that they use to communicate with each other in the field, in the wild, wherever it happens to be, you can’t really say that you have imposed a training regime on these animals because you haven’t. You’re just simply interpreting what the animals are saying to each other. And so it makes it easier to argue from the part of refuting the skeptics’ criticism, that this is indeed a language and this isn’t something that you’ve trained into the animal.

Dylan Lyons: I want to hear specifically about your prairie dog research. I think people would be fascinated to hear some of the fun, specific insights that you’ve learned. Can you just share a couple of the most interesting things that you discovered about prairie dog language?

Con Slobodchikoff: Over a long period of time and with many, many experiments, my research team and I have shown that the alarm calls of prairie dogs don’t consist of just a simple cheep. When you listen to prairie dog alarm calls, it sort of sounds like a bird calling, sort of, “Cheep cheep cheep cheep cheep.” It sounds like a meaningless sound.

Con Slobodchikoff: On the internet, you have all of these memes where you have a prairie dog or a marmot going, “Alan Alan Alan Alan,” or something like that. No meaning associated with it at all. But with our studies, which I hasten to say were done with experimental design and with statistical analysis and all of the scientific controls that you could possibly imagine, we have shown that prairie dogs have different words for different predators.

Con Slobodchikoff: So, they have a word for a human, they have a word for a coyote, they have a word for a domestic dog, they have a word for a hawk, a red-tailed hawk. And within those, they can describe the physical features of the individual predator. Like for a human, they can describe the size and shape of the human, they can describe the color of clothes that the human is wearing, they can describe the speed of travel of the human. And actually, in one experiment we even showed that when a person walked out wearing a blue shirt and blue jeans and was of a certain height, the prairie dogs had a predictable call for him based on his height and shape and so on.

Dylan Lyons: Wow.

Con Slobodchikoff: He took a shotgun out and shot it multiple times. Not at prairie dogs, just in the air. And after that, the prairie dogs attached another word to that, which of course we don’t know the exact meaning of but it looks like they attached the word gun to him. And the fascinating thing was that for the rest of the month of the experiment, whenever he showed up without his gun they always had the descriptor term for him plus they attached that gun label to him, even though he didn’t have a gun.

Dylan Lyons: That’s incredible. I think a lot of people will be surprised to learn about that. That’s so surprising.

Con Slobodchikoff: Well, frankly I was surprised too, because I didn’t really expect them to remember for the month of the experiment that here was a person that had a gun once and shot off the gun multiple times once. And yet they always after that attached that label to him. Now, it might not have said gun, it might have been, “Dangerous man,” or something along those lines. We obviously don’t know.

Dylan Lyons: It makes you think a lot about animal intelligence and how I think we as humans assume a lot of animals lack intelligence just because we can’t understand them. But that’s not necessarily the case, as we see here.

Con Slobodchikoff: Right. We make assumptions about animals, just like that person, the child psychologist, made an assumption about children with second languages, and those assumptions aren’t necessarily true. And in fact, more and more studies are showing up, not only with my prairie dog work but with lots of studies with animal cognition, that animals are much, much more complicated than we’ve ever given them credit for, and that they are much more like us than we’ve given them credit for, and that they perhaps think along the lines of our thoughts too.

Dylan Lyons: Speaking of animals that we relate to, I would imagine we have a number of dog owners who listen to our show. So, I guess, what tips do you have for dog owners that you’ve learned over the years in terms of how they communicate with their dogs and how they understand their dogs’ needs? Are there any insights you can give?

Con Slobodchikoff: Well, this goes back to a time when I used to provide behavioral advice to people with their pet problems, problems with their dogs and their cats and other pets, based on my behavior training. And what I found was that a lot of people misinterpret the signals that their dogs are giving. So, people think that they know what their dog is actually trying to communicate to them, but a lot of times they’re wrong. And just to give an example, here’s one case that I had where a person called me and said that, “My dog is aggressive towards me and wants to bite me.”

Con Slobodchikoff: So, I came over and there is this very large man who spoke in a very deep voice. And he walked over to his dog and said, “Good dog,” and the dog immediately ran into a corner of the room and showed his teeth. And the man said, “See? The dog wants to bite me.” Based on what I know of the behavior and signals of dogs, I said, “Your dog doesn’t want to bite you. Your dog is afraid of you because here you are speaking in this gravelly voice which sounds like a growl to a dog.”

Dylan Lyons: Right.

Con Slobodchikoff: “And you come up to the dog and loom over the dog when the dog is standing in the corner there, and looking down at the dog and saying this growl thing. And it sounds to the dog like you’re about to kill the dog. And so he’s afraid of you, so he’s showing his teeth.”

Con Slobodchikoff: I said, “Here’s what you do. First of all, you train yourself … ” and this is hard for men. But you train yourself to speak in a high-pitched voice. Sort of like, “Good dog. How are you? Oh, what a great dog you are.” And admittedly, it’s hard for men to do that. It’s hard for me with my larynx to do that. It’s a lot easier for women to do that because they tend to have higher-pitched voices.

Con Slobodchikoff: So, what that is, what high-pitched sounds are to dogs is what they hear from their mothers when they’re doing something right. Their mother whines to them and this reassures the dog that they’re doing something right.

Con Slobodchikoff: The first thing that you should do is try speaking to your dog in a high-pitched voice. You can reprimand the dog when the dog is doing bad things by saying, “No,” in a low-pitched voice and that translates into a growl. And again, that’s what moms do to their puppies. When puppy is doing something wrong, their mom goes … in a low-pitched voice and that tells the puppy that they shouldn’t be doing what they’re doing.

Dylan Lyons: Great, great. Yeah, that’s some great practical advice for dog owners. I guess getting back to the larger discussion of animal languages in general, and I think as part of it I want to hear about the translation company that you were discussing at the beginning. But how do you envision the future of studying animal language? And I think technology is a big part of that, but what does that look like to you? What’s the ideal end goal?

Con Slobodchikoff: We need some kind of key that provides us a way to unlock the meaning of the language. And that has been very difficult and that has been very elusive. In the case of my prairie dogs, the key has been that the prairie dogs live in a colony, they don’t go anywhere. Predators come into the colony. We can videotape the predators, we can videotape the prairie dogs. We can record all of the sound. We can videotape the escape responses of the prairie dogs. And then we can play back the recordings that we did when there is no predator present, and videotape the escape responses of the prairie dogs to see if the escape responses to just the sound are the same as the escape responses when the predator is there. Then we know that the sound actually has some meaning to it. That has been a big problem in terms of unraveling animal languages.

Con Slobodchikoff: But now, we have technology in the form of artificial intelligence technology which allows us to get at that kind of thing, which allows us to look at patterns and allows us to compare patterns and see how the patterns vary according to different contexts. The key here again is context. If we know what the context is, we have a good shot at unraveling what the signals are. And the signals may not be acoustic, they may not just be sound. They may be visual signals, they may be chemical signals, they may be touch signals. But once we have the context, artificial intelligence technology can look at the patterns and match up patterns and start to tell us what the meaning of these signals actually is.

Con Slobodchikoff: So, I think that in the future, with devices like the one that I’m developing and the extensive use of artificial intelligence technology, I think that we will be able to understand the languages of many, many different animals. And in the future, what I’m hoping is that once we understand that animals do talk, once we can talk to them, then we’ll develop partnerships with them rather than exploiting them the way that we currently are.

Dylan Lyons: Very interesting. Yeah, that’s exciting stuff. It sounds like there’s still a ways to go, but we can achieve a lot more in this realm.

Dylan Lyons: Well, Con, thank you so much for your time. If people are interested in this topic they can also check out your book, right? Chasing Doctor Dolittle.

Con Slobodchikoff: Right.

Dylan Lyons: Coming up, a look at animal language hoaxes that fooled the masses. Can we believe all the articles we read about talking animals? We’ll be right back.

Jen Jordan: Hey there, it’s Jen. Multilinguish is brought to you by Babbel, the language app. Our marketing team wants you to know that we offer an app that teaches you 14 languages, from Spanish, French and Italian, to Portuguese, Russian and more. Babbel’s app is created by real language teachers and experts. You’ll learn how to have conversations in real-life situations like ordering a coffee to go or telling off that guy who just cat-called you on the sidewalk in Paris. I don’t know what he said, but I didn’t like it.

Jen Jordan: Anyway, we’re offering Multilinguish listeners 50 percent off a three-month subscription. New customers can get this offer by visiting babbel.com/podcast. That’s B-A-B-B-E-L.com/podcast.

Jen Jordan: Now, back to the show.

Dylan Lyons: Welcome back. Before the break, we talked about the importance of learning about animal languages, and we heard a word of caution about animals who learn human languages. It can be tempting to get super-excited about viral stories featuring animals who can communicate with humans, but sometimes these stories are not what they seem. I’m joined now by producer Thomas Devlin, who has been looking into some animal language hoaxes. Thomas, thanks for being here.

Thomas Devlin: Hello. Thank you for having me.

Dylan Lyons: You’ve been across a few of these cases where animals were said to be communicating with humans, but the stories weren’t entirely truthful or something in there didn’t add up. Can you give us some examples of these so-called language hoaxes?

Thomas Devlin: Yeah. I have three examples that are taken throughout history of some of the most famous animals that were purported to have an ability to speak a language in some way, but … Well, you’ll see.

Thomas Devlin: I want to start with Clever Hans who is the first talking animal. Clever Hans was a horse.

Dylan Lyons: Ooh.

Thomas Devlin: So, probably not the first animal you’d think of with animal languages but-

Dylan Lyons: Definitely.

Thomas Devlin: … you’ll see. In 1891, so this is way back, there was a man named Wilhelm von Osten who started touring Germany with his horse Hans, which I think is a very funny name for a horse but …

Thomas Devlin: In their performances, von Osten would ask Hans questions. He might ask, “If Thursday is the 2nd, what day is Monday?” and Hans would reply … That was horse clopping, because the horse literally would clop its hoof on the ground to answer these mathematical questions.

Dylan Lyons: Is this like Morse Code?

Thomas Devlin: No, it’s just counting. I honestly am not sure if I got six claps in there, so if I’m wrong than Hans is indeed smarter than I am.

Dylan Lyons: Could be.

Thomas Devlin: And around this time, the 1890s and the early 20th century, there was a lot of hoaxes let’s say. It was past the period of P.T. Barnum. And von Osten, while also being a retired schoolteacher, was considered a mystic. So, people’s first assumption was that he must be doing some sort of trickery to make the horse know what the correct answer is. And so in 1904, a psychologist named Carl Stumpf decided to look into the horse and he gathered together 13 people. There were schoolteachers, a zoologist, a cavalry officer. And he created the Hans Commission which was the most-

Dylan Lyons: The Hans Commission? That sounds intimidating.

Thomas Devlin: Yes. The commission on Hans. They looked at the performance and were trying to figure out, “Is von Osten clearly making some signal to the horse that’s giving him the right answer?” They looked and they decided, “No, it’s actually a very convincing act, the horse seems to understand and is answering.” At this point, especially after that had happened, Hans was very famous around the world. The New York Times wrote about him. But in 1907, one of Carl Stumpf’s proteges, Oskar Pfungst … This is a very German story, if that’s not obvious already.

Dylan Lyons: I got that from Hans the horse, but yes, please continue.

Thomas Devlin: Pfungst decided to take a more scientific approach, and he performed a number of trials that looked at all the variables of Clever Hans. There were trials where they had a different person reading the questions. They saw if it made a difference if Oskar knew the answer to the question or not when they were asking.

Thomas Devlin: And basically he discovered that Hans was not understanding what the person was saying, but Hans was very, very good at reading body language. This is a big theme in a lot of animals that seem to understand the human language, is that they’re actually just really good at seeing human.

Thomas Devlin: So, when von Osten would ask a question, he would tense up a little bit. Not in a way that the audience would be able to notice, but the way that the horse would. And then when the horse got to the correct number of clops he would release in a way that told the horse, “Okay, I need to stop clopping.”

Dylan Lyons: Oh wow. That’s an extremely observant horse.

Thomas Devlin: Yeah. I mean, Hans is definitely clever but he just didn’t understand the English language in the way that was being reported. Clever Hans and von Osten, after they were debunked by Pfungst, von Osten said, “No. My horse is very smart.” And he went onto continue performing and continued to sell out acts until von Osten died in 1916. But the legacy of this is that animal language often is interacting with something called the Clever Hans effect, which is a very specific effect, which is that often when an animal appears to be understanding language they’re in fact just responding to possibly very, very small clues that are being given out by the person speaking to it.

Dylan Lyons: That’s really interesting. It’s funny because while Hans didn’t actually speak a human language, he was very perceptive with body language, which many of us wish we were better at reading, and he even got this effect named after him. So, I mean, it wasn’t all bad for Hans.

Thomas Devlin: I mean, good for the horse. I want to specify that oftentimes with these, even though the claims might not bear out entirely as they’re supposed to, they all do lead to a lot of interesting stuff.

Thomas Devlin: But next I’m going to turn to Koko the gorilla. Are you familiar?

Dylan Lyons: Yes, I’ve heard of Koko, yeah. I don’t know much, but I know she’s a big deal, or was a big deal.

Thomas Devlin: Yes.

Dylan Lyons: And died recently?

Thomas Devlin: She did pass away in 2018. And I want to clarify before the story even begins, Koko is blameless in my opinion and is just a kind gorilla. Koko was-

Dylan Lyons: Noted.

Thomas Devlin: … a celebrity during her lifetime. She met with William Shatner, Leonardo DiCaprio, Robin Williams. And there were always a lot of media stories around Koko. The big claim was that she could speak sign language and knew 1,000 symbols, and thus had a strong grasp on the human language. All of this coverage was pretty uncritical. You probably just heard, “Koko the sign language gorilla,” if you heard anything about her.

Dylan Lyons: Right, yeah. Exactly.

Thomas Devlin: But if you dig into this story a bit deeper, it starts to get a little dark.

Dylan Lyons: Oh.

Thomas Devlin: But before getting to the darkness, there were just a lot of red flags that if you looked into these stories you might be able to recognize. Because when you hear that Koko knew 1,000 sign language symbols, you might first think, “Oh, well American sign language, obviously.” But that wasn’t actually really the case. It was supposed to be kind of American sign language, but really it was just a very, very loose language of symbols. And the only people who were really able to translate it were the researchers who worked at The Gorilla Foundation that worked with Koko specifically, including Penny Patterson.

Dylan Lyons: That sounds convenient, but okay.

Thomas Devlin: Yeah, because it would basically be a situation where Penny would translate and be like, “That’s what this means.” Another red flag is they really didn’t let other researchers get close to Koko or do their own research on her, which … Yeah. I mean, again this is just red flags galore if you’re not letting other researchers in. But they just continued to flood the world with these positive stories. Again, Koko the gorilla was cute. She had a pet kitten and everything. But there’s really no independent verification of her language ability.

Thomas Devlin: And then now is when we get to the dark part, which is that there was a sexual harassment lawsuit which … Yeah. The details basically are there are two former employees of The Gorilla Foundation who took Penny Patterson to court because of an exchange during the previous year, which was 2004. The two employees said that while Patterson was talking to Koko and translating, Patterson at one point said that Koko wanted the two women to take their tops off. And this was part of-

Dylan Lyons: Oh.

Thomas Devlin: Yeah. This was part of a larger trend of Koko allegedly asking to see nipples, because apparently a common sign that Koko would make was, “Nipple.” But again, pretty much every sign that she created had multiple meanings, so there’s really no way of being able to verify that. And it is just weird for a person to be like, “This gorilla wants you to take your top off,” basically.

Dylan Lyons: Yeah. It sounds like Penny had some ulterior motives going on.

Thomas Devlin: Yeah. There’s still not a whole background story of what exactly happened. There was more drama at The Gorilla Foundation. At one point, a bunch of people left the company entirely because they said that Koko was not being taken care of properly. And there’s a lot more to the story that we’re not going to go too deeply into here. But really Koko did not speak sign language, I am willing to say, because she may have had certain abilities and certainly was a charmer, but there’s really no way of knowing exactly what her abilities are now that she’s passed away. She lived to the ripe old age of 46. Usually, gorillas live till about 35 to 40.

Dylan Lyons: Wow.

Thomas Devlin: Yeah.

Dylan Lyons: So, let me ask you. Is the understanding that she was just making normal gestures that a gorilla might make, and that these were interpreted to mean specific things that they didn’t necessarily mean?

Thomas Devlin: She was definitely different from other gorillas. They wouldn’t normally be using sign language at all. I should mention Penny Patterson worked with Koko for decades, it was years and years, and they definitely, probably had somewhat of an understanding of each other. But if you try to translate exactly the symbols that Koko was learning, there just was not an exact resemblance to how a human language would work.

Dylan Lyons: I see. Interesting.

Thomas Devlin: Yeah. Lastly, we will go to Bunny the dog.

Dylan Lyons: Bunny the dog. What a great name.

Thomas Devlin: This is a TikTok celebrity. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Bunny, are you?

Dylan Lyons: I did see a viral video going around, although at the time I did not know that the dog was named Bunny. But something with pressing buttons, I think.

Thomas Devlin: Yeah.

Dylan Lyons: On a toy.

Thomas Devlin: Basically, Bunny’s owner made this big board on the ground and it’s covered in buttons which include various words and phrases. There’s stuff like, “Home,” “Park,” “Love,” “You,” on and on. The board, I believe, has gotten larger and larger as Bunny’s, quote unquote, “knowledge” has grown. And Bunny’s owner will ask the dog questions and the dog uses its paws to push the buttons to answer. There are some very convincing clips of Bunny talking using this board. The owner will ask questions about, “When did we go to the park?” and the dog will say, “This morning,” or something along those lines, but …

Thomas Devlin: I will say, in my own opinion, if you watch these videos I think Bunny is a Clever Hans situation. And maybe not entirely. I mean, we do know that dogs are able to understand human language to a certain extent, otherwise the whole sit, stay, heel thing wouldn’t work. But a lot of clips that I’ve seen of Bunny don’t really convince me that this dog fully understands what’s being said, because sometimes she’ll accidentally push various buttons or just things of that nature and Bunny’s owner will extrapolate meaning from that.

Dylan Lyons: Like a psychic or a crystal ball reader-

Thomas Devlin: Yeah.

Dylan Lyons: … that gives you very vague things.

Thomas Devlin: I think this is very common, because when you have a pet sometimes you do think the pet is trying to communicate with you and you’ll ascribe meaning. Of course, when people tell you that … When a cat puts its paw on your shoulder, it’s not actually trying to reassure you because it knows you’re sad, it’s just trying to get food or something. But the owner will never believe that.

Dylan Lyons: Right.

Thomas Devlin: But my personal theory is that maybe the dog has memorized certain patterns that it knows that Bunny’s owner will respond positively to, or is just trying randomly and then the clips are taken out of context. But I don’t want to say this one is exactly a hoax, because even though I don’t personally buy what’s exactly happening, Bunny’s owner is working with researchers on Bunny’s intelligence and they’re working to figure out exactly what’s going on here. And maybe I will be proven now. Maybe years from now we’ll know a lot better about how dogs communicate. But at the end of the day, there’s a lot of unknowns and I just don’t know.

Dylan Lyons: I mean, I think there’s a fine line, right? And we talked about this earlier in the episode. But there’s this fine line between animals learning human language and animals being rewarded for certain behaviors, and then being trained almost psychologically to do certain things that make it seem like they’re speaking human language or they’re communicating with humans, but that could just be because of the feedback loop of how we’re rewarding certain behaviors.

Thomas Devlin: Yeah. And it really does get to a very philosophical question of what exactly language is. Aren’t humans just responding to patterns and spitting out their own responses to them?

Dylan Lyons: That’s a valid point.

Thomas Devlin: Yeah. I mean, we will get more into that in a future episode, I believe. Sometimes, you think if this dog is able to understand and respond in this way, then is it not in some way speaking a human language? Or does the fact that it’s just responding in that way to get a treat later making it invalidated?

Dylan Lyons: Right. It’s definitely hard to make that distinction. I think it’s a gray area.

Dylan Lyons: All that being said, do you think there’s any chance humans will be talking to animals in the future?

Thomas Devlin: Yeah, I think there’s a very real possibility. I’m being the downer in this episode by slaying all of these myths from the past, but I think that it won’t look like the examples so far when it does happen. I think the best example of animal language research is probably dolphins. Because scientists have known for a long time that dolphins are intelligent. It’s a famous part of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. And so dolphins have been in the research cross hairs for a while, but the way that they’ve been researched has changed a lot.

Thomas Devlin: Let’s go back to a very famous experiment in the 1960s, when they put a scientist and a dolphin in the same house and tried to teach the dolphin English. You have to imagine this house is submerged under a certain of water so that human and dolphin can coexist. And they were convinced that, “If there’s just enough exposure, this dolphin will be able to learn.”

Thomas Devlin: It’s a weird experiment, because there was also LSD experimentation and also a lot of rumors of human – dolphin sexual relationships during it.

Dylan Lyons: Oh. Well-

Thomas Devlin: We don’t have the time to go into all of that.

Dylan Lyons: Yeah, we’ll talk about this offline.

Thomas Devlin: But in short, the dolphin did not learn to speak English because it’s just not really possible. I think all of the examples we’ve talked about so far are animals that are trying to learn human languages, but really it’s more likely going to be the other way around. And that goes to how we’re talking with dolphins now, which researchers are able to use AI to analyze dolphin speech. I won’t do my dolphin impression.

Dylan Lyons: Please.

Thomas Devlin: Dylan, if you want to impart yours.

Dylan Lyons: No, I don’t know. No. Seal.

Dylan Lyons: You want to go more …

Thomas Devlin: Yeah.

Dylan Lyons: Like that?

Thomas Devlin: Yeah.

Dylan Lyons: Cool.

Thomas Devlin: Using AI and other tools, researchers are able to analyze this and see when they’re using certain calls during certain times. And then because we have that technology, we can intimate those sounds and talk back to the dolphins in some way.

Dylan Lyons: It does seem like AI is going to play a big role in the future of animal languages.

Thomas Devlin: Yeah, because as smart as humans are, we have not really entirely understood what animals are saying. I know in the first half you talked about prairie dogs languages, and there’s a lot of promise there, but-

Dylan Lyons: Yeah.

Thomas Devlin: … I don’t think what’s going to happen is that some human will live with, say, wolves for a year and then know how to speak wolf.

Dylan Lyons: Right. That’s not the trajectory here.

Thomas Devlin: Yeah. I think the big takeaway for me is that instead of projecting human intelligence onto animals, what we really need to do is meet them where they are. And the future of animal language is going to not look like human languages probably at all.

Dylan Lyons: Right. I think that’s hard for us as humans living in a human-centric world with this mindset that it’s all about us, it’s hard for us to acknowledge that but-

Thomas Devlin: Yeah. And it certainly is not as appealing in headlines, because, “Computer vaguely communicates with dolphins,” is a lot less fun than, “Gorilla can speak fluent sign language.”

Dylan Lyons: Right, exactly.

Thomas Devlin: “And is best friends with Mister Rogers.

Dylan Lyons: And, I mean, just because they can’t speak human languages doesn’t mean they aren’t intelligent in their own way. It speaks to how we define intelligence, I guess.

Thomas Devlin: Yeah. That’s another thing that comes up a lot with language in general, because … I always forget what the quote exactly is. It’s often attributed to Albert Einstein but he did not actually say it. But it’s something along the lines of, “If you were to judge the intelligence of a fish by its ability to climb a tree … ” Something along those lines. It’s like they can’t climb—

Dylan Lyons: Right.

Thomas Devlin: … like a dolphin just does not have the anatomy to speak English. So, they’re not stupid because they can’t speak to us.

Dylan Lyons: Right, exactly. It’s a silly premise that we’ve put on the whole thing. But it does seem like there is some future for animal language and understanding it, which is pretty exciting.

Thomas Devlin: I personally am excited to speak to an animal before I die.

Dylan Lyons: Let us hope that that will happen. I do hope that that happens for you. Which animal would you want to speak to, by the way, if you had to pick?

Thomas Devlin: Well, as an active birder, I of course would love to communicate with say an owl. I think that’d be fun.

Dylan Lyons: I knew you were going to say an owl.

Thomas Devlin: “How many licks does it take to get to the middle of a Tootsie Pop?” I’d ask the owl.

Dylan Lyons: And Thomas will report back on that in a far future season of Multilinguish.

Thomas Devlin: Season 53.

Dylan Lyons: Exactly. Thomas Devlin, thank you so much for your time today.

Thomas Devlin: Thank you.

Dylan Lyons: Multilinguish is a production of the language app Babbel. This episode was produced by me, Dylan Lyons, with help from Thomas Devlin. Editing and sound design by Brian Rosado. Special thanks to Dr. Con Slobodchikoff for speaking with us for this episode. You can read about today’s episode topic and more on Babbel Magazine. Just visit babbel.com/magazine. Say hi on social media by finding us @babbelusa. And finally, please rate and review this podcast, we really appreciate it.

Want to learn another human language?
Author Headshot
Dylan Lyons
Dylan is a senior content producer, overseeing video and podcast projects for the U.S. team. He studied journalism at Ithaca College and previously managed social media for CBS News. He’s currently pursuing his MBA part-time at NYU Stern. His interests include podcasts, puppies, politics, alliteration, reading, writing, and dessert. Dylan lives in New York City.
Dylan is a senior content producer, overseeing video and podcast projects for the U.S. team. He studied journalism at Ithaca College and previously managed social media for CBS News. He’s currently pursuing his MBA part-time at NYU Stern. His interests include podcasts, puppies, politics, alliteration, reading, writing, and dessert. Dylan lives in New York City.

Recommended Articles

Communicating With Dolphins: Will Humans Learn Their Language?

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.
Multilinguish: Your Brain On Language

Multilinguish: Your Brain On Language

Brains! Language! It’s pretty complicated (but oh so elegant).
Multilinguish: Into The Conlang Universe

Multilinguish: Into The Conlang Universe

In this episode of Multilinguish, we explore constructed languages designed for pop culture — and for real life.