They Can Talk

When we think of animals and speech, the paragon is the bird. Our avian friends are the only other creature on the planet that can produce human speech.

Though they cannot currently ape human vocalizations, gorillas and chimpanzees can employ sign language.

Despite the fact that we can intuit how many species feel and what they desire, based on a variety of physical attributes and behaviors, birds and primates have been the only creatures to possess linguistic abilities.

Until a few human companions became creative.

An African Grey Parrot named Einstein knows more than 200 words and phrases

When speech-language pathologist Christina Hunger decided to bring a puppy named Stella to live with her in 2018, she claims she noticed Stella demonstrated “many of the same pre-linguistic communication skills as toddlers do right before they start talking.”

As a speech therapist, Hunger uses instruments known as Augmentative and Alternative Communication devices. These contraptions help people who have a difficult time speaking to express themselves through specific words. Since dogs can understand human words, she wondered if Stella might respond to an AAC device.

Hunger developed a soundboard for Stella. When one of the giant buttons is pushed, a recording of a specific human word or phrase plays. For example, a button repeats the word “outside” when pushed. Could Stella learn to push the button when she wanted to relieve herself outdoors or go for a walk?

To Hunger’s glee, the answer was yes!

Stella, a Blue Heeler/Catahoula mix - photo from Hunger For Words

As impressive as pushing a button to go outside is, this trick is really no different than teaching any animal to repeat a task to earn a reward. Dozens of species have acquired the ability to push a button to garner a treat.

Hunger did not stop at single words, however. Using what researchers in this arena now call Augmentative Interspecies Communication devices, Hunger constructed a complex soundboard that allows Stella to string together multiple words, sometimes even resembling sentences.

In the video below, Stella consecutively hits the buttons for “Stella want play outside.”

Using the AIC device, Stella employs more than 50 words and delivers phrases up to five words long. According to Hunger, Stella “gives voice to her daily thoughts, requests, [and] feelings,” which makes her the “world’s first talking dog.”

Since then, hundreds of dogs have learned to interact with humans via soundboard. A handful has become internet stars, as their humans have documented their learning process via social media. Researchers and teachers have created a website that aggregates the progress of the many dogs learning to speak Human and provides templates for starting one’s own soundboard project. TheyCanTalk mixes cognitive scientists, psychologists, furry critters, and everyday citizens in an effort to understand what’s happening with dogs such as Stella.

These dogs are seriously impressive. More impressive, perhaps, is the fact that TheyCanTalk has branched into the feline world.

Anyone who has spent much time around cats knows they are notoriously difficult to train. Not because they can’t learn to repeat things, they just don’t care. They are the everyday equivalent of Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener, saying, “I would prefer not to.”

Yet, cats have also taken to the soundboards. The video above confirms that cats usually contain far more sass than the average dog. Billi, like Stella, has learned over 50 words.

As of last fall, 2,600 dogs and 300 cats were part of the research project at TheyCanTalk. A dog named Bunny has racked up over 350 million views on TikTok. If you can stomach vertical video, check out one of Bunny’s conversations:

Are these animals actually learning a language? Even if they are simply repeating sequences they know produce a specific result, the complexity of the sequences at more than 50 choices is frankly stunning. Some of the cognitive scientists researching this phenomenon believe that animals are able to understand a rudimentary, communicative language.

If they can string together words, it begs the question: do cats and dogs have a sense of self? Some of Bunny’s sentences include “existential” thoughts about love and a slew of questions that include “why.” When confronted with a mirror, Bunny has queried “what?” multiple times, which allows her humans to impart some information. She has wondered such things as “what [are] dogs?”

Could these combinations of words just be lucky strings that sound great to humans who want to believe? How many millions of monkeys typing random words would produce a work of Shakespeare? Something seems to be happening on a level higher than simple training. Perhaps one day we will be able to communicate well with our furry friends.

Sometimes, though, I’m not certain I really want to know what my cats think!

Further Reading and Exploration

They Can Talk – Official Website

Hunger for Words – Christina Hunger’s Website

A “talking” cat is giving scientists insight into how felines think – Salon

Bunny, the dog that can “talk,” starts asking existential questions – Salon

Talking with Your Dog or Cat – Animals of the Pacific Northwest

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