Human Intelligence

How well can bottlenose dolphins comprehend language?
Answered by Cristen Conger and Animal Planet
  • Cristen Conger

    Cristen Conger

  • Animal Planet

    Animal Planet

  1. Cristen Conger Blogger, Stuff Mom Never Told You
    For decades, researchers have had a hunch that dolphins possess a natural knack for language. In the mid-1950s and '60s, John Lilly was one of the first experts to champion this notion, convinced that the significant volume of the mammal’s neocortical brain region indicated language-comprehending capacity. The neocortex controls many of the brain’s higher functions including spatial awareness, motor movements, sensory perception and in humans, language. But when Lilly attempted to decode dolphin vocalizations and later teach dolphins human lingo, he failed.

    That isn’t to say that dolphins don’t have a rich marine vocabulary, however. Bottlenose dolphin exhibit three primary forms of vocalization: clicks, burst-pulse emissions and whistles. Their clicks allow the mammals to navigate via echolocation. Burst-pulse emissions can be compared to exclamatory phrases, as a series of rapid emissions generally convey disgruntlement and slower, more languorous pulsations signal pleasure. Whistles are the least apparent dolphin vocalization, employed to communicate among each other. The exact messages they’re sending in those whistles aren’t entirely clear to researchers, nonetheless, these flippers clearly communicate well among themselves.

    In the mid-'70s, a major linguistic breakthrough occurred at the Kewalo Basin Marine Mammal Laboratory in Honolulu. A team of researchers led by Louis M. Herman established the first convincing evidence that bottlenose dolphins – or at least an especially bright dolphin named Akeakamai -- might in fact be language learners. Herman and his colleagues successfully taught Akeakamai a gesture-based language somewhat like sign language, and the dolphin demonstrated semantic and syntactic understanding over time. In other words, the dolphin not only learned what the individual gestures meant but also how the arrangement of those gestures could evoke different meanings.

    Semantic and syntactical comprehension rests at the core of human language. Humans have come up with thousands of words that can be switched around in an infinite number of arrangements to convey an infinite amount of information. From that perspective, dolphins do possess primitive comprehension capabilities. But while instructors can prompt dolphins with gestures and signs, the dolphins crucially can’t communicate in kind. Though they might comprehend the basic tenets of language, bottlenose dolphins can’t manipulate and create language, which remains a uniquely human trait.  
    dolphin, dolphins, bottlenose
    (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

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  2. Many experts believe bottlenose dolphins enjoy advanced language comprehension skills. They seem able to understand simple sets of signed gestures both semantically and syntactically. They also comprehend the idea that generalized words can refer to sets of objects with similar characteristics. For example, they get that a big red ball and a small blue ball are both considered balls, despite the differences in shape and color.

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