Research: Summaries

seeing through sound

understanding language

understanding questions

communication through television


pointing gestures

awareness of one's own behaviors

awareness of one's own body parts

behavioral mimicry

dolphin research publications

whale research

Understanding Language

One of the traits that characterizes our own species is language. Some have contended strongly that language is in fact unique to humans, and that no animal possesses language ability. While this may certainly be true

Akeakamai receives a set of instructions in her gestural language.
at the sophisticated level of language possessed by humans, the question remains whether some of the major defining characteristics of language may nonetheless be acquired by animals. The many studies attempting to teach language to apes have demonstrated that although these animals seem incapable of or barely capable of producing language, they nevertheless can learn to understand a language-like symbol system. For example, Savage-Rumbaugh at Georgia State University has reported extensive findings with a bonobo chimpanzee named Kanzi, showing Kanzi's ability to understand many instructions given in spoken English. Similarly, our work with a dolphin named Akeakamai has shown her ability to understand instructions given within an artificial sign language, in which gestures are like words and sequences of gestures are like sentences. The dolphin demonstrated her understanding by carrying out the instructions correctly in the large majority of cases, including instructions new to her experience. To understand the instructions, the dolphin had to take account of both the meaning of the words (gestures) and word order. That is, she had to account for both the semantic and the syntactic component of the language. The sentences comprising the instructions may be from two to five words in length. For the two-word sentences we state an object name and then we state an action name. The dolphin understands to take the named action to the named object. For example, the gestural instruction directs Akeakamai to jump over the dolphin Phoenix. Other sentences request Akeakamai to construct a relation between two objects, by taking one object to another or placing one object on top of or inside another. Word order must be taken into account. For example, the gestural sequence Surfboard Person Fetch means, "take the person to the surfboard," whereas the sequence Person Surfboard Fetch means the opposite, -"take the surfboard to the person." The grammar used is inverse in its construction, in the sense that the destination object is stated first, then the object to be operated on, and finally the type of operation. This inversion requires the dolphin to receive and process the entire sequence before it can reliably interpret the instruction and organize its response. Finally, there are also gestures for left and right, relative to the dolphin as she faces her trainer. For example, the five-word sequence, Right Basket Left Frisbee In means, "Put the Frisbee on your left in the basket on your right." Most often, the dolphin carries out her instructions correctly, occasionally operating on the wrong object, but hardly ever mistaking the grammatical form of the sentence. Our work, like the later work with the bonobo, has demonstrated that dolphins and bonobos are capable of processing two of the fundamental properties of language system-the semantic component, which deals with meaning and the things that word refer to, and the syntactic component, which is a system, such as word order, that governs how one word is related to another word in a sentence grammatically.

Herman, L. M. (in press). Language learning. In W. F. Perrin, B. Wursig, C. M. Thewissen, & C. R. Crumley (Eds.). Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals. NY: Academic Press.
Herman, L. M. & Uyeyama, R. K. (1999). The dolphin's grammatical competency: Comments on Kako (1998). Animal Learning & Behavior, 27-18-23.
Herman, L .M., Kuczaj, S. III, & Holder, M. D. (1993). Responses to Anomalous Gestural Sequences by a Language-Trained Dolphin: Evidence for Processing of Semantic Relations and Syntactic Information. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 122, 184-194.
Herman, L. M., Morrel-Samuels, P. (1990). Knowledge acquisition and asymmetries between language comprehension and production: Dolphins and apes as a general model for animals. In M. Bekoff & D. Jamieson (Eds.), Interpretation and explanation in the study of behavior: Vol. 1: Interpretation, intentionality, and communication. (Pp. 283-312). Boulder: Westview Press.
Herman, L. M. (1986). Cognition and language competencies of bottlenosed dolphins. In R. J. Schusterman, J. Thomas, and F. G. Wood (Eds.) Dolphin cognition and behavior: A comparative approach. (Pp. 221-251). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Herman, L. M., Richards, D. G. & Wolz, J. P. (1984). Comprehension of sentences by bottlenosed dolphins. Cognition, 16, 129-219.

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