What Can Animal Communication Tell us About Spoken Language Processing by Mind and Machine?

Essay, 2007

13 Pages, Grade: 1



Table of Figures



Spoken Language Processing by Mind

Speech Evolution

Ability to Speak and Understand

Imitation and Learning

Spoken Language Processing by Machine

Imitation and Adaptation



Table of Figures

Figure 1: Primates in Evolution (Aitchison, 2001:51)

Figure 2: Larynx Position in Chimps and Humans (Aitchison, 2001:82)

Figure 3: Brain Size of Chimps and Humans (Aitchison, 2001:85)

Figure 4: Use of Animal Studies to solve Language Related Problems (Hauser et al., 2002:1573)

Figure 5: Unsolved Questions in Speech Evolution (Fitch, 2000:265)


In this essay, it is described what animal communication can tell us about spoken language processing by mind and machine. First, it is explained how animal behaviour influences the human side. Then it is shown what can be learnt on the machine side. In conclusion, it can be said that the study of animal communication provides scientists with clues for creating theories of human speech evolution. However, more research in the future is necessary to underpin these theories. A number of questions still remain unsolved. The same is true on the machine side for the development of applications that copy animal techniques.


Nowadays, scientists do not know for sure how the human brain works in detail. It is still little known about spoken language processing by mind. No other organism has such a complex language system as human beings. Animals do also communicate but cannot produce human speech because of their anatomy. They use smell, vision, and hearing for interaction. They can be compared with machines; both lack highly sophisticated abilities of thinking and reasoning. However, several ways have been developed that make a machine communicate via speech. Algorithms are known for speech recognition (Jelinek, 2001) as well as speech synthesis (Holmes & Holmes, 2001) but their performance is still unsatisfactory. Today humans are much better in speaking and listening than machines.

In order to find out more about how humans and machines can produce and perceive speech, animal communication is studied. By testing a lot of species, one can discover if a mechanism only evolved for a function, e.g. speech. It is possible to watch animals and compare their behaviour to that of humans. For example, psychological experiments can be carried out, e. g. with apes and human children. One can also anatomise dead animals to discover how their brains, vocal tracts, or ears look like. This can be compared to the knowledge of human anatomy. Similarities in humans and animals point to the same evolution (Hauser, 2001). Research in this area provides us with cues for understanding how it all developed in speech evolution. In modern technology it can be tried to imitate useful animal behaviour to build machines, e.g. for hearing.

Spoken Language Processing by Mind

Speech Evolution

Evolution started a long time ago; therefore, nobody knows for sure what happened and how it developed in detail. Evidence for evolution can be found in the DNA pattern of humans and animals. They have a lot in common but there are also differences. The relationship between organisms can be shown in a hierarchical tree which is displayed in figure 1. Humans belong to mammals and primates. Their ancestors split from ape-like creatures, so that from this point of view today’s apes are humans’ closest relatives. Therefore, it is likely that humans and animals, especially apes, might have similar ways of producing and perceiving sounds. Speech evolution is an important field of research today. Animal studies can tell us about the origins of speech. They show us what organs were not necessary for speech evolution, e.g. air sacs only occur in apes but not in humans. Researchers are not sure what function they have but they could be related to sound production in apes.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Figure 1: Primates in Evolution (Aitchison, 2001:51)

There are different theories (Aitchison, 2001) about the origins of human language, e.g. it was believed in the past that humans learned how to sing and speak from birds. But nobody knows for sure how it happened that speech occurred. The “East Side story theory” (Aitchison, 2001:55) speculates that the human ancestors were separated from other animals when the Great Rift Valley in Africa was changed by an earthquake. Then, they were forced to live in a dry, harsh climate and developed a need for communication to survive. With speech it was possible to communicate over a distance as well as in the darkness. They started naming things, for example parts of their body, or objects they worked with. They also described actions with words that are now known as verbs. Later all these words were combined according to syntax. Different languages might have developed when humans migrated out of Africa to other places of the world. They were geographically separated and created different sounds and words for certain entities.


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What Can Animal Communication Tell us About Spoken Language Processing by Mind and Machine?
University of Sheffield
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what, animal, communication, tell, about, spoken, language, processing, mind, machine
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Dr. Antje Bothin (Author), 2007, What Can Animal Communication Tell us About Spoken Language Processing by Mind and Machine?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/309186


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