While we have probably encountered a parrot at least once in our lives and have recently received news of orcas imitating their human trainers’ speech, we don’t really expect most animals to talk the way humans talk to each other. But surprisingly enough — they do!
According to a comprehensive new study, many species pause in their “conversations” to facilitate taking turns. For many years, this turn-taking has long been thought to be a solely human trait, but it has since been observed everywhere — from birds to whales to elephants.
After reviewing hundreds and hundreds of studies about mammals, amphibians, and many other classifications, the research team proposed a framework to understand how different animals communicate. Their findings imply that we might soon be able to understand how we evolutionarily began to communicate as well.
“The ultimate goal of the framework is to facilitate large-scale, systematic cross-species comparisons,” says one of the team, linguist Kobin Kendrick from the University of York in the UK.
“Such a framework will allow researchers to trace the evolutionary history of this remarkable turn-taking behaviour and address longstanding questions about the origins of human language.”
While taking turns was discovered to be common among many species, the gaps in the “conversations” vary. Songbirds take less than 50 milliseconds before they answer their fellow songbird. The gap in sperm whales can reach up to two seconds in between replies. Meanwhile, pauses in human conversations tend to be around 200 milliseconds.
Other interesting findings include what’s socially acceptable among other species. For instance, birds called European starlings avoid overlaps when they communicate. In human terms, this means that they don’t talk over each other. When that happens, it results in silence or one of the birds flying away. Fascinating, huh?
Since about 50 years ago, scientists have already been studying the ways animals communicate. But what’s different now is the large comparative scale of this analysis. Previous findings have never been compared, but now even human linguists are collaborating with the effort.
“We came together because we all believe strongly that these fields can benefit from each other, and we hope that this paper drives more cross talk between human and animal turn-taking research in the future,” says [Sonja Vernes from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands].
Who knows? One day we might not only be studying how communication happens across different species, but how it could eventually happen between different species.