- Animals as diverse as elephants and parrots can mimic the sounds of human speech. But can any of them understand what they are saying?
- Tilda (an orangutan) wasn't the first animal that seemed to be able to mimic human speech. A handful of other species also make noises that sound like talking, including elephants and beluga whales – to say nothing of parrots.
- These animals seem capable of bridging the language barrier that separates us. And their attempts at speaking like us make them quite irresistible. But can they really "talk" as we do? It's not just a matter of being able to make the sounds. To really count as talking, the animals would have to understand what they mean.
- In this respect, Koshik (an elephant) is quite a normal animal. You can teach your dog to understand the words "sit" or "fetch the newspaper", says Jarvis. But the dog cannot imitate these words, let alone use them to tell you what to do.
- There is one glaring exception to this rule: Alex the parrot. Not only could he say dozens of English words clearly, he used them to identify objects, colours, shapes, and numbers.
- Clearly, African grey parrots operate on a far high level than any other animal mimic. Nobody yet knows how or why this one species of parrot can do what other animals cannot.
- The truth seems to be that some animals can mimic the sounds of human speech, but only a tiny minority can talk meaningfully as humans do. These less capable animals are just as fascinating as the truly skilled, because they could reveal how our own language skills evolved.
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