Animals such as this mandrill communicate in different ways. The mandrill is a large baboon that lives in western Africa.

"Now listen, Doctor, and I'll tell you something. Did you know that animals can talk?"


"I know that parrots can talk," said the Doctor.


"Oh, we parrots can talk in two languages – people's language and bird language," said Polynesia proudly.


With these words, Polynesia the parrot began the first lesson in animal speech to her famous owner, Doctor Doolittle.


Unfortunately, the Doctor Doolittle stories by Hugh Lofting are only make-believe. Yet, it is a fact that animals of the same type, or species, do communicate among themselves. For example, they can warn each other of approaching danger or pass news about the location of food. Animals of different species can swap information, too. A lioness that snarls at a pack of hyenas trying to steal her kill is sending a clear message to the intruders: "Back off, or else!"


Every day, we humans also communicate with other animals. When I call out to my dog, "Come here" or "Stay" or "Sit," he usually obeys. In return, he sends signals to me. By wagging his tail or letting it droop between his legs, by barking or whimpering, and in many other ways, he lets me know how he feels.


Some animals are much easier for us to communicate with than others. A dog or horse can learn to respond to a wide variety of spoken commands. But try training a slug or a beetle to come when you call it!


How well we can communicate with another animal depends mainly on that creature's intelligence. The cleverest of species, such as gorillas, chimpanzees, dolphins, and whales, are usually the ones with the most complicated language of their own. They are also the species with which we may communicate most effectively in the future.


So, could you ever speak chimpanzee (or gorilla or dolphin)? Although "talking with the animals" may never be quite as simple as Doctor Doolittle found it, a great deal of interesting progress has already been made. But before we consider possible communication between humans and other species, it will be helpful to look at some of the strange and varied forms of language in the animal kingdom.