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Talk to the Animals? Yes! And What's More, They Talk to Us!

Talk to the animals?


And what's more, they talk to us!

If you've ever shared your life with animals, you'll know that they understand most of what you say to them. You mention that you're going for a walk and the dog is standing at the gate, ready. You say that you're going visiting and that dogs aren't invited and you find out where the expression 'hang-dog look' came from -- the ears droop, the head sinks and Pooch drags himself off to sulk.

It's dinner time, you tell the cat that she's got fish for tea and you're overwhelmed with affection; you tell her that tonight's the night she has a tin of cat food and watch her turn her back and ignore you.

So, we know that they know what we're saying, but are we clever enough to understand what they are saying to us?

A cat has a very large vocabulary -- every syllable in miaow can be lengthened, shortened, used alone or in combination with one or more of the others; it can be loud or barely audible; it can be confident, angry, intimate or pitiful, depending on what the cat is trying to tell us.


Cats teach us how to understand them in much the same way we teach babies to understand their language. Every human baby makes the same pre-speech sounds; the gurgles, clucks, hums and bubbles are common to every society. When we hear a sound that is similar to a word used in our language, we repeat it to the baby and then make a great fuss when the baby repeats it to us, and so each child learns the language of its own society.

When your cat wants to go outside, she will try a series of different sounds until you learn to recognise one of them, then she will always use that particular sound to tell you she wants to go out. So, a short m'ia means "I'd like to go outside;" a loud m'ia means "I'd like to go outside NOW;" a long miiaoowww means she can't find you; a pitiful little m'ow means she's cold and she'd like a cuddle.

She will patiently teach you her 'words' until she feels confident that you can meet all her needs. (The poster that states "dogs have masters; cats have staff" has a great deal of truth in it!)


Animals use body language and signals, as well as sounds, to communicate. Just watch a child who's been in trouble go to the family dog for comfort. Pooch sits quietly, gazing into the child's eyes, his face a picture of concern and sympathy. He doesn't have to say anything, he just presses gently against the child and offers moral support by simply being there.


Since we can be taught to understand animals, researchers have tried to teach animals how to understand our language, too.

Research into the language capabilities of primates at Georgia State University, Atlanta began in 1971 when the Lana fund was set up "to produce a language analog of human language in non-human primates" and was linked to finding different ways to teach language to children with disabilities.

The first experiments centred around Lana, a female chimp born in October 1970 (and named after the project - LANguage) and were simple tasks that resulted in food being released when certain keys on the computer-based keyboard were pressed.

However, Lana soon began to string together stock sentences into meaningful and new sentences of her own creation, such as "You give Lana banana which is black?" when asking for an overly ripe banana.

According to University records, "Lana was the first ape to demonstrate that chimpanzees could form syntactically adequate sentences, the first to show that they were capable of recognizing written symbols, and the first to demonstrate that they could read. She could take partially completed sentences, read them and complete them appropriately."

Recent research, conducted by Georgia State University Psychology Professor, Duane Rumbaugh, Ph.D., of the Language Research Centre, shows that when reared in the proper environment, chimpanzees and bonobos are as capable of understanding questions and simple sentences as a two-and-a-half year old child.


Kanzi, a bonobo ape, and his foster mother, Matata, arrived at the LRC when Kanzi was 6 months of age. He accompanied his mother during her daily lexigram training tasks and spent most of his time ignoring them or trying to disrupt them in any way he could. Like any youngster, he liked the lights on the keyboard and often tried to chase the symbols as they appeared on the projectors above the keyboard.

When Kanzi was 2 1/2 years old, Matata was sent back to breed and Kanzi was separated from her for the first time. After fretting for her for three days, Kanzi then settled and began to play with the keyboard. Lab notes record that he, "correctly employ(ed) nearly all of the 10 lexigrams that were on his mother's keyboard at that time. He didn't need to be taught these lexigrams, as he already knew them.

"Prior to the separation, however, Kanzi had given no evidence that he had even been attending to them, much less that he understood any sort of semantic connection between lexigrams and objects in his world. Even more striking than the fact that Kanzi knew the lexigrams, was the fact that he also knew the spoken English words which the lexigrams represented. He couldn't speak the words, but when he heard them, he could locate the lexigram, or printed symbol, that corresponded with the word."

One of the most fascinating aspects of all this was that Kanzi had learnt to understand the lexigrams simply by being exposed to their use. From that point, all reward-based learning was discarded in favour of letting Kanzi learn through conversation.

He was given plenty of help to learn with gestures, with pictures, with video tape and with activities that showed the words in action. Most of the conversations centered around travel, finding food and playing and his vocabulary steadily increased until today he can use over 200 words and can understand more than 500.


After observing how chimpanzees communicated in the wild using signals, psychologists, Beatrice and Robert Gardner conducted a series of experiments in the 1960s, to teach young chimps Ameslan, the American sign language where each gesture represents a word, rather than a syllable or sound.

The young female chimps learnt hundreds of words and were even able to use these words to invent their own phrases to suit different situations. One chimp, Lucy, was given her first taste of a hot radish and signed that it was, "... cry hurt food."

Hearing impaired people who observed the chimps were able to understand them without difficulty and the Gardners were hopeful of being able to extend their communication with the chimps.


However, funding for the project gradually dried up and the chimps were sold for medical research.

Shortly before the facility closed down, two handlers who had worked on the project made one last visit. They signed to the chimps, "What do you want?"

One after another, the chimps signed back, "Key."

The danger in learning to understand what animals have to say is that we may not like what we hear.

Jennifer Stewart has a degree in English and History and taught senior High School for over twenty years. During that time, she was Head of Department, responsible for devising and implementing teaching programs, and for supervising young teachers. After leaving full-time teaching, she wrote (and now markets) writing courses for students and adults who want to improve their writing skills. Visit her website at and subscribe to free, weekly Writing Tips:

Jennifer also offers professional writing services - copy writing, editing and proof reading for your web pages, press releases, technical booklets, newsletters, business proposals, reports or any other writing projects.


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