Breaking Down Animal-Human Language Barriers

Written by Katie Vann

cow and girl

For those of us who choose to pay attention, animals communicate a great deal. Mother cows cry out to their calves. Chickens have more than 30 types of vocalizations and chirp to their chicks before they’re even hatched, and the furry companions in our homes will be sure to let us know when they need something–a belly rub, dinner, or playtime, just to name a few. No doubt, though, we’re sometimes left scratching our heads, wondering what our cats or dogs are trying to tell us.

Imagine if we could better understand their language and how they communicate. How would this knowledge change our relationship with other animals?

Surprisingly, this idea is not as far-fetched as may sound. In fact, there are researchers right now working to make this happen. One such researcher, Con Slobodchikoff PhD, recently told The Atlantic “it’s probably five to 10 years out. But I think we can get to the point where we can actually communicate back and forth in basic animal languages to dogs, cats, maybe farm animals — and, who knows, maybe lions and tigers.”

Right now, Dr. Slobodchikoff is trying to crack the language code of prairie dog who live in large, stable colonies and have a complex social structure. These animals are very communicative with detailed calls that alert others to predators. In fact, researchers are learning that the prairie dogs combine sounds to string together unique warnings, such as individual alerts that a “large, brown, dog” is approaching.  They also have “social chatter”– which the researchers are having a much harder time cracking!

In his interview, Dr. Slobodchikoff, sums up well the potential impact of this technology:

“What I’m hoping, actually, is that down the road, we will be forming partnerships with animals, rather than exploiting animals. A lot of people either exploit animals, or they’re afraid of animals, or they have nothing to do with animals because they don’t think that animals have anything to contribute to their lives. And once people get to the point where they can start talking to animals, I think they’ll realize that animals are living, breathing, thinking beings, and that they have a lot to contribute to people’s lives.”

We may not be able to talk to animals just yet, but we do know they’re fully capable of suffering, and anyone who has seen undercover video inside factory farms or slaughterhouses knows these animals express fear in their voices. We can let them know we’re listening simply by choosing to leave them off our plates and encouraging others to do the same.