February 5th, 2007

Ann Vole

The hurtles of language development in non-humans

The brain works by associations... This sensation means that action will avoid pain or cause pleasure. Moving that associative function to equating a signal with a meaning is the hard part (connecting part is easy but changing what is being connected - the word "sharp" equals something that could cut you instead of touching sharp equals pain). I see animals do this switch very quickly though so it is not the big hurtle. Now getting an animal to understand human words is easy but why can't we get animals to talk as easily? To communicate, the one sending the signal has to have the expectation that the one receiving the signal will understand. This requires the ability to imagine oneself in someone else's body... "how would I feel if I was him". This is supposed to be what the old mirror self-recognition test... They have to put themselves into the brain of the mirror image and realize that the reflection thinks identical to one's self and in that strange idenical thinking should be enough to figure the reflection is really themselves. Now the real hurtle is one step further... Both the listener and speaker need to come up with with the idea that the other can understand signals.

The final hurdle is probably the biggest... Both individuals need to equate the same meaning to the same signal. This hurtle is probably the thing that prevents languages to develop in most animals. To develop, one individual has to get into it's head that it needs to teach everyone else that a certain signal means a certain thing.

Now the only small animals us humans are fairly have a language of some sort are tree squirrels and ground squirrels. Both of these animals give vocal cues to tell the others of strange animals entering their territory. This gives everyone the instinct to give and receive a signal of danger. Variations in such a signal to indicate different levels of danger or different types of danger are a minor adjustment to this behaviour that is also a minor adjustment in the minds of the listener as they see that signal A happens when species A intrudes and signal B equals species B. Now that the have a language for the obvious, adding new words is fairly easy.

Us humans can teach animals different words and hope they figure out that others of their own species know the same word. I have seen dogs and cats who know their own name and the names of other animals in the household. This can be seen when they react with jealousy at the human calling the name of a different animal... They know the other animal knows its name too.