Question of the Week

Will we ever be able to have a conversation with animals?

Sat, 13th Oct 2012

Listen Now    Download as mp3 from the show Listen Up! The Science of Hearing...


Hannah Hockley asked:

Will we ever be able to have a conversation with animals?


Alan -   And now, with a question of a completely different type, here's Hannah Critchlow with our Question of the Week.

Hannah -   This week, we find out if there will ever be a real life Dr. Doolittle.

Hannah H. -   Hi.  My name is Hannah Hockley and I'm from Bristol, and I wondered, will we ever be able to have a conversation with animals?

Dogs - Social animalsHannah -   So what's the scientific possibility of this and what do we count as a conversation anyway?  We call up somebody who spends his working week looking into these very questions.

Erich -   Hello.  My name is Erich Jarvis.  I am an Associate Professor in Neuroscience at the Duke University Medical Centre in Durham, North Carolina.  There are several ways of thinking about what it means to have conversations with animals.  One way is reciprocal, learned vocal communication that is spoken language, which we humans do with each other.  Surprisingly, we can do this in a rudimentary fashion with some animals that can learn to speak like African grey parrots.  These species are vocal learners, meaning that they have the ability to imitate sounds, and then there are other forms of communication, where an animal such as dogs will understand humans speech words, but not be able to produce them.  And many animals, including monkeys or cats and so on will be able to understand and to produce facial expressions, eye movements, body language so to speak, and other forms of communication.

Hannah -   But if we think about the first type of communication that we humans have, so vocal intelligence reciprocal communication, is this possible with animals?

Erich -   I believe that many have a greater capacity for complex understanding of what we call comprehension of sounds, but not the ability to produce those sounds.  My research has shown that those animals that have the ability to produce them, that is to produce the imitated sounds like humans, have specialised areas in their forebrains that control vocal learning and the production of the learned sounds.  And these areas have so far not been found in species that can't do vocal learning.  Further, weve been investigating ways in which we can manipulate the brain circuits of such non-human animals to determine if we can induce better control of their vocalisations.  If successful one day, in my lifetime or later, then yes, I believe we will be able to communicate with other animals more verbally in a reciprocal manner than what we do now.

Hannah -   So, neuroscientists are  tweaking with the vocal learning centres at the front of the brains of animals, altering the activity in these circuits to learn how they work.  And they think that in the future, we may be able to have more reciprocal vocal conversations with a number of different animals.  Sticking with expressing ourselves, we pose our next question.

George -   Hello I'm George Cotcher-Riley from Wirral and my question for the Naked Scientists is, was prehistoric art like cave paintings only done in caves or is that the only place untouched enough for it to be preserved?

Hannah -   So, did our ancestors paint and draw all over the place or did they just hang their art works in caves?  Send us your thoughts by posting on the Naked Scientists Facebook page, tweet@nakedscientists, email, or join in the debate on our forum, which is at

Chris -   Hannah Critchlow.


Subscribe Free

Related Content


Make a comment

Of course it dosen't have to be that animals must learn our means of communication. Since we are so clever, why don't we take what we learn of their language to speak to them.

Why do some caged birds imitate us? Is it perhaps to attract our attention, or simply because they can. Wild Lyrebirds can imitate many sounds, such as ringing phones, chain saws etc. Why do they do this? It certainly isn't to attract our attention, so perhaps it is simply because they can, or that the more sounds an individual can imitate, the more desireable it is deemed to be as a mate. Perhaps it was at first a means of defence. Threatened by a predator, with no means of escape, to imitate the roar of a Lion might frighten off many a smaller predator.

Bees can communicate the direction and distance of a good food source to other workers in the hive by wagging their abdomen.

Dogs can even communicate with us. Barking, growling and whimpering vocalisations in conjunction with tail, teeth, paws and other body movement visualisations express their pleasure, displeasure, warning and threat.

Many animals express vocal communications which some people have studied and can imitate. Visual communication, such as in the Chameleon and Cuttlefish, may be understandable, but I doubt we will ever have the ability to imitate it.

Dolphins and Whales have some of the most complex vocalisations and could prove the most exciting languages for us to learn. The question here might be, do Common Dolphins and Bottlenose Dolphins use different languages? Can a Sperm Whale understand a Humpback Whale?

But I think the bottom line is, do any of these animals actually want to communicate with us? In fact, some Dolphins already do: But dolphin vocalisation is alien to ours. In this instance, I would hazard a guess that it was the Dolphins which instigated this communication, therefore, is it not our turn to reciprocate?

We have the technology and it is we who seem to be so keen to talk to the animals. They, for the most part, have no cause to want to communicate with us, except perhaps to tell us to bugger off out of their homeland and stop planting for palm oil production etc. So if we want to talk to them, we must learn their language and imitate or synthisis it.

The question then would be, what might we learn? Animals do pass on information and emotion to each other and some animals can understand other animal language, but 'conversation'? How many animals might want to pass the time of day with idle chit-chat, as we do?

Click - clickclick - clickclickclickety - clicketyclick - click?
(Translation)Did you see that huge Sardine Dolly Dolphin caught yesterday? Don_1, Wed, 17th Oct 2012

I had a siamese cat at one time that sort of could talk to me-her mews had all different tones to them of which i could discern what they meant-unfortunately she was usually telling me to shut up when i greeted her in the morning. lol jazzderry, Mon, 5th Nov 2012

See the whole discussion | Make a comment

Not working please enable javascript
Powered by UKfast
Genetics Society