In this lesson we will discuss the difference between communication and language, examine whether animals have the capacity for language, and look at examples of animal communication.

Language vs. Communication

You may have heard someone saying that the birds chirping outside your window in the morning are talking to each other. Maybe you have seen a mother cow calling for her calf. These examples illustrate why a person might think non-human animals have language. Do you think that animals have language?

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Do you think animals use language?
animal communication

Many people use the terms communication and language interchangeably because they seem like the same thing. However, they are actually two different concepts. Communication is the expression of information to another and language is the ability to put words together in such as way that they make grammatical sentences. Does understanding the difference between the two ideas change your answer to the question of whether or not animals have language?

Human and Animal Differences

Humans are different from other animals. One of these differences can be found in the use of language. A fundamental difference exists in the way information is presented to communicate and the way it is organized and presented in the expression of language. For example, a chimpanzee could learn the words ‘apple’ and ‘hungry’ and use them appropriately in sign language to convey an idea. However, it could not learn to express this idea as, ‘I see an apple and I would like to eat it’. These extra words would make no sense to the chimp, but they help humans process the information more clearly. In other words, an animal can communicate but only humans use language in its true sense.

Types of Animal Communication

They may not be able to master language, but all animals communicate, or intentionally transmit information to each other. In fact, the ability to communicate effectively is essential to their survival. This communication can take on a variety of forms such as:

  • Vocalizations – such as a dog growling at another dog to display aggression, or bird calls to maintain territory, attract a mate, or stay with a group
A dog showing aggression.
animal communication
  • Non-vocal noises – such as a dolphin slapping its tail on the water’s surface to warn other dolphins of danger, or a rabbit thumping its hind foot to signal danger
Dolphins warn others by slapping their tail on the water.
animal communication
  • Smell – such as a male lion scent marking its territory to tell other male lions to stay away
A lion marks his territory by scent.
animal communication
  • Color – such as a Humboldt squid flashing bioluminescent colors to send signals to other squid, or an octopus changing color (and texture!) to indicate irritation or fear.
A squid changes color to communicate.
animal communication
  • Visual displays – such as a peacock displaying its tail feathers and dancing to attract a mate, or the appropriately named peacock spider who also has an elaborate dance and colorful display to impress females.
A male peacock displays its tail feathers to impress a female.
animal communication

Animals even communicate across species. For example, a large fish called the coral grouper can recruit a moray eel to join a hunt. The grouper makes special head movements and will even nudge the large eel, and once the eel follows the grouper leads it away. The grouper indicates they’ve arrived by shaking its head and doing a head stand over the area where the prey is hiding for the eel to root them out.

Other animals will simply eavesdrop on the communication of another species. For example, on the island of Madagascar a flycatcher’s alarm call alerts a native iguana of the danger of attack from a bird of prey.

Lesson Summary

The terms communication and language do not mean the same thing. Language involves the use of complex grammar to put word into sentences. Communication simply involves transmitting information to another. Humans and animals differ in the way they organize and present information. Animals can communicate and intentionally transmit information to each other. Only humans use language.

Animal communication occurs both with animals of the same species and between animals of different species. This ability is essential to their survival. Vocalizations and non-vocal noises are both ways animals use sound to communicate. Color and visual displays are a way that animals communicate through sight. They even communicate with each other through smells.