Babies and Animals: Language or Communication?

A video of twin babies interacting with each other while standing in diapers in a modern kitchen has gone completely viral, with more than 20 million views on YouTube. What probably intrigues people who find it particularly amusing is that the interaction has all the trappings of an adult conversation—but without the language.

While some commentators have described the twins as speaking in their “twin language,” this isn’t entirely accurate. At just over a year old, the twins probably know and produce some words, but they aren’t using a secret twin language to communicate meaning. In fact, in this video they repeat the syllable “da” over and over. And, if you carefully observe the video, you’ll see that the twins are actually repeating the same call-and-response sequence multiple times.

In my opinion, what is most remarkable is that the twins have acquired certain aspects of prosody and paralinguistic properties (gestures, facial expressions, and the like) without actually having the vocabulary to carry on a conversation of this length. Even though they don’t yet have the content to fill it, they’ve acquired the communicative tools of a conversation: intonation patterns (rising intonation for questions, but falling intonation for answers, declaratives, emphatic statements, and responses), turn-taking, certain facial cues, eye contact, and more.

parrotsAnother popular language-related video involves a parrot, known as José, who does a remarkable job of sounding like a woman on a phone call. It should come as no surprise that José’s previous female owner spent a lot of time talking on the phone. What’s so convincing about the parrot’s performance is that he can mimic an exchange that tends to repeat itself across conversations. He’s able to form an abstraction of and reproduce an almost formulaic pattern of information structure.

José the parrot is able to do this because he heard his owner do it repeatedly—he recognized the pattern! Parrots learn words or phrases based on repetition, and this parrot learned an entire sequence by recognizing intonation patterns that repeat across context.

In the videos, both the twins and the parrot are communicating through vocalizations; the babies are also communicating using gestures and more. But what do you think? How do these examples speak to the difference between language and communication?

blog comments powered by Disqus