Are Humans the Only Animals That Use Language?

It’s easy to say that language separates people from animals. A closer look at the animal kingdom, however, reveals that things may not be that simple. Some animals can mimic human speech. Others can easily communicate with humans and one another. What exactly does it mean to use “language” and how does language differ from simply speaking or communicating? Are there animals who use language like we do? Here’s our exploration of language in the animal kingdom! 

What makes a language?

Part of what makes this issue so complex is the difficulty of pinning down one precise definition of “language.” Oxford Languages defines “language” as “the principal method of human communication, consisting of words used in a structured and conventional way and conveyed by speech, writing, or gesture.” Some forms of human language include speech but no written form (the Shoshone language, for instance, has no written tradition), and some include gesture but no verbal speech (like American Sign Language). What do all of these languages have in common? They not only convey meaning, they obey formal rules, too. As Oxford Languages put it, they’re “structured and conventional.”

Is this a language?

Let’s say two friends spot each other from across a crowded street. One tries to gesture to the other, “Wait there, I’ll cross to you.” She holds up one hand in a “stop” gesture, points to herself, and mimes crossing the street.

“Got it,” thinks the other friend. “She waved ‘hello’ to me and indicated that she wants me to cross the street toward her.” These gestures don’t obey a formal set of mutually understood rules or grammar. The friends were trying to communicate through signs, but they weren’t using a formal language like ASL. 

Similarly, let’s say you’re preparing for a trip to Germany. You’ve memorized a few German words and are eager to test them out. But wait—you used them in the wrong order. You accidentally told the waiter that you were eaten by a chicken instead of saying that you wanted to eat chicken! Grammar and syntax are important to language. To speak German, you need to know the appropriate sentence structure. In what order do you place words? How do you use articles to indicate the object and subject of sentences? Without a distinction between “I will eat chicken” and “chicken ate me,” can you accurately say that you speak German? 

Hold onto those thoughts. We’ll dive deeper into these questions in a moment! 

man in black crew neck shirt holding red and blue bird
Photo by Aziz Acharki / Unsplash

Animals that talk

With that in mind, let’s check out some animals that talk. You might think that an animal’s intelligence can be measured by their ability to produce articulate speech or not. But there’s more to verbal speech than intelligence. In addition to the physical mechanisms required to produce speech, animals need to have robust neural connections between their brains and their larynxes. Humans have lots of them. So do parrots. But apes, which are incredibly intelligent, don’t have many at all. Producing verbal speech is not possible for them even if they have the vocal tracts for it.  

Several types of birds can reproduce human speech with stunning accuracy. Crows and starlings can repeat a few words, while mynah birds, budgies, and parrots can learn hundreds or even thousands. Even wild birds can learn to mimic human speech from other birds that were formerly kept as pets and released into the wild.

For the most part, though, birds copy words and phrases without seeming to match them to meaning or create new sentences of their own. One exception was a famous gray parrot named Alex. He knew about 100 words, but more interestingly, showed a remarkable ability to match a word to its meaning. He could correctly identify keys of different sizes and shapes and colors as “keys" and could accurately identify the colors of objects. He also said grammatically correct sentences like, “See you tomorrow.”  

Still, his impressive skills don’t quite qualify as language. The New York Times characterized him as mastering “basic expressions” but not “logic and ability to generalize that children acquire at an early age.” You need those skills to truly master grammar, which, like we mentioned before, is important for mastery of language.

a group of monkeys
Photo by taylor gregory / Unsplash

Chatting with our closest cousins

Alex the parrot isn’t the only animal famous for his language skills. Some of the other fabled animal communicators don’t use verbal speech at all. Great apes are our closest relatives in the animal kingdom and share quite a few qualities with humans that researchers used to think were exclusive to our species. They use tools, make "medicines” out of natural materials, and even understand numbers. Do they have language, too? The answer isn’t that simple. 

Plenty of apes have learned to communicate with humans using ASL signs. Koko the gorilla understood around 1,000 signs and often combined them in innovative ways, like signing “finger bracelet” to mean “ring.” She seemed to understand abstract concepts like "good" and "bad." But it’s very difficult to assess how much a gorilla truly comprehends, and despite her large vocabulary, Koko never learned the appropriate syntax and grammar for ASL.  It’s also likely  that some of her keepers’ generous interpretations of Koko’s signing were "wishful thinking" and that she guessed at which signs zookeepers wanted to see to get her desired rewards. That still takes some intelligence, but it doesn’t indicate command of language.  

Two famous signing chimps, Washoe and Nim Chimpsky, couldn’t quite master fluency in ASL either. Nim’s longest signed sentence was “Give orange me give eat orange me eat orange give me eat orange give me you,” which doesn’t exactly resemble sentences in any known human language. He used phrases like “Nim eat” and “eat Nim” interchangeably, like the confused German student we talked about earlier. Still, his tactics seemed pretty effective as a way to communicate his desires. 

But what about forms of communication other than ASL? Kanzi the bonobo famously uses a picture board on a computer board that vocalizes his commands. He understands around 3,000 English words, can hit buttons to ask for food or describe objects, and can follow spoken commands. It’s impressive. But it’s not exactly language as humans use it. 

The question that remains, though, is why would non-human animals need to use language the way that humans do in the first place? 

black and yellow bee on pink flower
Photo by Esperanza Doronila / Unsplash

How do animals communicate with one another?

So many cool forms of animal-to-animal communication have been observed in the wild. Bees use unique “waggle” dances to help one another find their way to food. These dances seem to follow innate rules that other bees comprehend. They’re not as flexible or expressive as language, but they do have structure like a language. Whales and dolphins whistle and sing their own songs to one another, communications that also seem elaborately structured. 

In the wild, apes combine body language, facial expressions, and vocalization to convey emotion, direct each other, alert the group to danger, show aggression, nurture and more.  Although they lack any sense of “grammar” as we understand it, ape communications do seem to have inherent meaning. 

So why don’t apes, despite being so intelligent and so similar to humans, use language the way we do? It might even be a better question to ask why we, unlike the rest of apes, need language to communicate. 

Fascinatingly, researchers have created a number memory test that most chimps can pass…and most humans can’t. Chimps are better at recreating a random series of numbers from memory than humans are, indicating a kind of "photographic' memory. Some experts believe that early humans had the same quick-recall memory skill but that we outgrew it as we evolved and developed language and the ability to collaborate more. Basically, you don't need as good a memory if you're good at communication. Memory can be more collective.  From a chimp’s point of view, using language at all could be seen as an adaptation that humans developed to make up for their own "deficiency" in memory.  

In that light, it does look like—as far as we know—humans are the only animals to successfully use language as we define it. But if we step outside of human definitions, it becomes clear that the animal kingdom is full of many different ways to communicate, to share information, and to perceive the world!