One goal of many researchers and scientists in recent times has been the pursuit of communication between animals and human beings, trying to somehow bridge our disparate worlds. While animals obviously communicate with each other in a vast array of ways, there are many who have asked the question of whether there is some method to speak between species, and to this end there have been some positive steps taken, for instance the use of sign language in great apes or programs pursuing communication with dolphins. Yet beyond this is there a way that animals can actually speak language and use it to interact with us vocally? Can some animals actually produce actual speech and talk to us? This may on the surface seem to be an absurd question, but there are in fact a few cases that seem to point to this not only being a possibility, but to having already happened. Here are some of the more intriguing cases of animals producing human speech, and the intriguing glimpses of insight they give us into the nature of human and animal communication.
One animal that has learned to produce human speech is perhaps one of the last ones you may expect to do so. Just outside of Yongin, South Korea, is the Everland Zoo, and here resides an Asian elephant with a very special ability indeed. Starting in 2004, Koshik the elephant suddenly began to startle zoo workers by perfectly mimicking words and expressions in the Korean language, such as “Hello,”(annyong) “Sit down,”(anja) “Lie down,”(nuo), “Good,”(choak) and “No” (aniya). The elephant was apparently able to nearly perfectly reproduce these words, which was both unsettling and extraordinary, as elephants do not have a vocal tract like humans, nor lips with which to enunciate the words, and more importantly none had ever shown the inclination to even try, making this sort of human speech mimicry from an elephant totally unprecedented.
Koshik got around these anatomical challenges by placing the tip of his trunk into his mouth and manually altering his voice tract to produce the unusual sounds, a method which an international group of elephant researchers studying Koshik since 2010 have deemed to be a “wholly novel method of vocal production.” The elephant even has managed to recreate a pitch, frequency, and timber which are the same as the voices of his trainers, suggesting that he spontaneously learned to emulate human speech through close contact with them his entire life. However, as amazing and unique as Koshik’s talking is, there is little evidence that he actually understands what he is saying, and it appears he is merely reproducing the words, perhaps in an effort to impress, please, or otherwise bond with the humans around him, although no one really knows the true reason. Nevertheless, Koshik has attracted great interest from researchers due to this remarkable ability.
Other strange animals that have gained or developed the surprising ability to mimic human speech are a beluga whale and a seal. One fairly well-known example is the beluga whale named Noc, at the National Marine Mammal Foundation in San Diego, California. In 1984 trainers were spooked when they claimed that they could hear what sounded like people talking near the whale enclosure when no one else was there. It was a strange phenomenon indeed, but it soon became clear that these disembodied voices were not from ghosts, but rather from Noc, who achieved the human-like sounds by over-inflating his nasal cavities to gain a higher pressure, in particular his vestibular sac, which is usually used merely to keep water from entering the lungs but which this beluga cleverly utilized to startling effect. The noises he produced in this novel manner were remarkably human-like, and were several octaves lower in frequency than the whale's usual sounds. Marine biologist Sam Ridgeway would say of the phenomenon, "They were definitely unlike usual sounds for a beluga, and similar to human voices in rhythm and acoustic spectrum."
It is thought that, like Koshik the elephant, Noc probably did this to bond with his human handlers, who he would have felt close to since he had been in captivity since 1977, when he was just a baby. It was very unique in that cetaceans had never been observed to do this before, and although belugas had been rumored to be good mimics and can reproduce an array of sounds, this was the first time one had ever been recorded doing human voices. He even seemed to show perhaps some understanding of the meaning behind some of the words, at one point producing the words “out, out, out” when a diver entered his tank when he was in a grumpy mood. Unfortunately, the full extent of Noc’s actual comprehension of human language or just how many words he could actually produce will remain unknown since he abruptly stopped doing it when he reached sexual maturity. You can hear some of Noc's antics here.
Another marine mammal who showed an unusual propensity for producing startlingly clear human-like speech was a harbor seal named Hoover, who was rescued and taken in by a George and Alice Swallow as an abandoned pup on the coast of Maine in 1971. The couple kept him in an indoor tub at first, later moving him to an outdoor pond on their property when he got too big, and the seal soon started to demonstrate the remarkable and notably un-seal-like ability to copy human speech. When Hoover got too big and too voracious to realistically keep any longer, the couple brought him to the New England Aquarium in Boston, Massachusetts, which would become his new home.
At first the aquarium staff were skeptical that Hoover could speak, but were soon just as astounded by this ability as the Swallows were. Some of the things Hoover would say were “Hey,” “Well, hello there!” “Get outta here!” “How are ya?” and “Get down,” as well as his own name and some other words and phrases, which got clearer over the years to be produced incredibly realistically and even with a thick New England accent. He was also known to laugh out loud in a very human way. Hoover the seal became quite the sensation when word got out about an actual talking seal at the aquarium, and he drew in crowds of onlookers and curiosity seekers, whom he would enthusiastically talk to and greet, as well as numerous TV programs and high profile news agencies. Hoover became so beloved that when he died in 1985 at the age of 14 he received his own obituary in the Boston Globe newspaper. It is unclear just why Hoover imitated human speech the way he did or how much he actually understood of what he was saying, but he certainly did use it to entertaining effect.
With their genetic proximity to us, one would think that great apes would be a key contender for being able to talk, yet while apes that can proficiently use human sign language are well-documented, much rarer are those that can actually speak. Indeed, although apes have complex brains and voice boxes capable of producing a wide array of the same sounds we can, they tend to be rather bad at mimicry. Researcher Erich Jarvis of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina has said of apes and their poor vocalization ability thus:
Theoretically their voice box can produce many of the different sounds that we can. But they just don't. Either apes don't have the forebrain pathways involved in vocal learning, or the pathways are non-functional for some reason.
However, this is not to say that some apes haven’t proven to be somewhat of an exception to the rule. An orangutan named Tilda at the at the Cologne Zoo in Germany has shown the ability to whistle like a human and make streams of garbled sounds that sound remarkably like human speech. Although she doesn’t seem to actually enunciate any real recognizable words, the sounds nevertheless sound like a very close approximation to human speech, share the same rhythm and cadence, and Tilda is known to experiment with vowel and consonant combinations and sounds, seemingly trying to work out how to form words. It is highly unusual for a non-human primate to do this in any way, and one researcher named Adriano Lameira has said of Tilda’s unique ability:
These were not only very different from whatever we have heard from wild orangutans so far, but we could also see some similarities with human speech.
Another great ape with this purported ability is a bonobo named Kanzi, who now resides at the Bonobo Hope Sanctuary, in Iowa. Since 1980 Kanzi has been trained and studied for his remarkable ability to effectively communicate through a special keyboard with symbols on the buttons, and is said to understand around 600 English words, phrases, and commands. What’s more, Kanzi can allegedly use many of these words verbally as well in a low, guttural voice that sounds strikingly human.
When looking at these strange cases of speaking animals, something that is often wondered is whether these animals are just copying us or can actually use this language in a meaningful way and whether they actually have a cognitive understanding of what they are uttering. This is often difficult to gauge, but there is one type of animal that has beyond a doubt shown that they do indeed comprehend human language and can use it, and these are the several dramatic cases of talking African grey parrots. While it might seem as though a parrot would be good at, well, parroting, some of these birds have really gone the extra mile to actually utilize and understand the language they mimic.
By far the most well-known of these is Alex the parrot, who belonged to animal psychologist Irene Pepperberg. From a very young age Alex was part of a research project carried out by Pepperberg with the aim of investigating birds and language, called the “Avian Learning Experiment.” She wanted to see if an African grey parrot could be taught to interact and communicate with humans to break down the communication barrier that separates us, similarly to various great apes and sign language. Before the experiment began it was widely believed that a parrot’s small brain would prevent it from ever actually being able to “talk” in the sense of understanding language and providing an appropriate response, but Pepperberg wanted to prove this conception wrong, and in this Alex absolutely excelled.
Alex would not only learn over 100 English words, but he could also use them and understand what they meant. He knew how to describe colors, shapes, and materials such as wool, paper, and wood, so for instance if he was asked about an object he could tell you what it was, its shape, color and even what it was made of. He could also count up to 8, and when asked how many of something there was he could tell you the answer, even able to tell you, for instance how many blue objects and how many red ones there were on a mixed tray, or tell you there were “none” if nothing was there. If he didn't know he would tell you "I don't know." Alex could also compare objects, for example tell you which one was bigger, and he could express certain abstract concepts such as “same” or “different,” simple probability, and others. He could tell you how he felt, answer simple questions, make guesses or requests, apologize, and even give rudimentary opinions on things such as where he did or didn’t want to go or what food he liked.
Many of these things were not specifically taught to him, with Alex picking them up on his own, with all of them suggesting an enormous level of cognitive thought, and he was widely touted as having the same intelligence level as a 4-year-old human child. This made him an object of intense scientific study for three decades, where he challenged many of the misconceptions scientists had had about animal intelligence right up until his death in 2007 at the age of 31. Even on his death bed Alex showed a remarkable awareness of the world around him and communication ability, and his last words to Pepperberg would be “You be good. I love you.”
Another African Grey parrot who has made waves is a resident of the Knoxville Zoo in Tennessee, who is rather appropriately named Einstein, and who has wowed visitors and appeared on TV numerous times with his complex grasp of around 200 words and distinct sense of humor. You can watch a demonstration of Einstein's abilities here. Perhaps even more impressive yet is one named N'kisi, who has a command of a massive vocabulary (for a parrot anyway) of around 950 words that he can apparently use in complete sentences and in proper context. He is said to often give unsolicited comments on things he sees, can describe what’s in photographs, call people by name, and even is reported to have a rudimentary grasp of basic grammatical structures, such as trying to conjugate verbs into the past tense, and additionally there have been occasions when the frustrated parrot has resorted to making up new words to explain an object or concept he doesn’t know the word for. So uncanny is his ability to communicate and perform complex linguistic and mental tasks that he even took part in a published scientific study of animal telepathic abilities, of all things.
Indeed, so remarkable are these cases of African Grey parrots and linguistic ability that they have come to be held up as the most skillful users of human language, far surpassing even our closest genetic relatives the apes in this regard. Although parrots tend to be good mimics due to their vocal tract's complex musculature and their thick, dexterous tongue, it is not really known why this particular species should be so proficient with not only speaking, but also the cognitive capacity to communicate with humans in a meaningful way. It certainly does show that human beings are perhaps not as unique with our ability to use language as we would like to believe, and all of this from an animal with such a small brain.
So why and how do these animals do it? There are many possible answers for the why. For some they might be trying to bond with us or convey something to us, much as they would do with their own species with their own vocalizations, regardless of whether they actually specifically understand what they are saying or not. This is particularly true for the “talking” animals that seem to show no awareness of the actual meanings of their words. For others that have shown cognitive understanding of the language they produce and hear, this could be a method by which they can gain some control of their environment, as is likely the case with the African grey parrots we have looked at. For others still it might be a way to impress potential mates or even be a way of coping with boredom. No one really knows.
As for the how they do it, there are certain criteria an animal needs in order to produce human speech, and limits to what we can expect with regards to how they display this. Obviously intelligence is a factor, but this does not necessarily equate to actual language speaking ability. The animal must also have the physical means by which to create the sounds needed, and perhaps above all they must be what is called a “vocal learner,” meaning that they have the ability to learn new sounds and then master imitating them. This might all sound pretty basic and fairly straightforward, but in fact only a handful of animals are known to be able to do this, such as of course humans, some types of birds such as parrots, songbirds and hummingbirds, some species of whales and dolphins, as well as bats, elephants, and seals, and even most of these vocal learners only ever learn to imitate the sounds of their own species. All other animals outside of this loop are stuck with the ability to merely produce the innate pre-set series of vocalizations or calls that they are born with.
The difference between the two types of animals lies in the way their brains work. With the vocal learners who are able to hear and learn new vocalizations, there are certain circuits and pathways within the forebrain that are linked to the ability to control the vocal tract to make new sounds, while other animals lack these links. For the animals that do have such sophisticated brain circuitry, these pathways are linked to certain genes that are the similar or the same across the board, with humans and, say, parrots possessing the same type of expression of genes that allow them to speak or mimic sounds respectively. So in the end, an animal needs this brain chemistry to learn to imitate, to be a “vocal learner,” as well as the physical means to produce the sounds if they have any hope at all of emulating human speech, and even then they would need the intelligence and cognition to say anything meaningful or in context, which only a very select few have demonstrated so far to any appreciable degree.
What is interesting about all of this is that while animal speech is still very mysterious and mostly poorly understood, in certain animals there doesn’t seem to be much that necessarily excludes them from being to speak human language to a degree or to even understand them. In this sense we are perhaps not completely unique in our ability to grasp language and speech, and in these very few cases there seems to be a certain promise in some of them that there is maybe the possibility of talking through the barrier of species. While talking animals must seem to many to be pure fantasy, and which was thought to be impossible not too long ago, it is perhaps closer to a reality than most may realize, and is another interesting frontier to explore in the quest for inter-species communication.