Most of us have heard a parrot mimic a human; some avians have such impressive abilities that it’s hard to tell them apart from the real thing. Still, it might surprise you to learn that they’re not the only animals who can talk like people.
This skill stems from “vocal learning,” or an animal’s ability to hear sounds and create a copy of them. For an animal to be a vocal learner, it must possess specific circuits in the forebrain that help it to learn new sounds and mimic them via the vocal tract muscles. In general, animals don’t understand these words; they simply copy the noises they’ve been exposed to. Here are some of the most skilled talkers.
Parrots are a group of intelligent birds found in tropical regions worldwide, known for their colorful feathers and ability to mimic human speech. If you’ve come face-to-face with one of these birds, you’ve probably felt a sense of delight when it responded to “hello” with a similar greeting.
Still, parrots - particularly African gray parrots - are intelligent birds who can learn more than just one mimicked phrase. Take Einstein, who lives at the Knoxville Zoo; she can recreate more than 200 words and sounds on cue.
Parrots aren’t the only birds that are talented at mimicking speech; ravens are pretty talented talkers too. Because of their social nature, these birds have to learn several “words” or noises from a young age to communicate their needs to other group members. These sounds have a range of meanings, such as “hello,” “food,” or “danger.”
However, when these birds are hand-reared, they adapt this vocal capability to learn human sounds. The common raven is one of the most intelligent birds in the world; it can even rival chimpanzees on certain intelligence tests. Ravens can use tools, solve problems, and plan ahead; they also have incredible memories, allowing them to repeat words and phrases.
Dolphins and Orcas
A dolphin may not be able to produce a “voice” in the same way that birds can, but they can copy the pitch and tone of a human voice. Take Peter, a dolphin trained in the 1960s, he might not enunciate “one, two, three” in the same way as a human, but you can certainly make out the tones and inflections we would use when pronouncing these words.
Hearing dolphins speak like humans is incredibly rare, but these intelligent animals have their own complex language comprising whistles, clicks, and pulses. While it sounds different from human speech, it is a remarkably similar form of communication.
Dolphins aren’t the only marine creatures who can mimic speech, either. Orcas, also known as killer whales, are the largest member of the dolphin family and have a distinct black-and-white coloring. They can be found in all oceans worldwide, where they live in large pods. Orcas have their own distinctive calls, which they use to communicate with each other, and scientists have discovered that they can transfer these language skills to mimic humans.
Great apes are a group of primates, including humans, gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, and orangutans. They are the closest living relatives to humans and share many physical characteristics with us. As a result, scientists have studied them extensively to gain insight into human evolution.
One of the biggest mysteries that has continued to elude scientists is language - if we evolved from our primate relatives, then why don’t we share an ability to talk? However, an orangutan named Rocky may help scientists gather more pieces of this puzzle. He may sound more like a Wookie than a human, but his ability to copy the tone and pitch of a human voice demonstrates the underlying tools that form a basis for speech.
It tends to be social species that can learn how to talk, and they generally only develop the ability to mimic human speech when held in captivity. Not only are they more exposed to human speech in these environments, but social animals are often keen to form a bond with humans when separated from their own kind.
Koshik, the Korean elephant, has wowed visitors for years with his ability to mimic the human voice. Still, opinion is divided as to whether this is amazing or cruel, with many suggesting that Koshik is learning to copy human voices because he is devastatingly alone and would be better placed with members of his own species.
Cats are one of man’s most beloved companions, so it’s no surprise that owners worldwide try to get their four-legged friends to talk to them. A quick YouTube search of “talking cats” reveals thousands of results, with some impressive feline skills - so what’s really happening here?
Cats can engage in “vocal learning,” as evidenced by the fact that they mimic other animals (not just humans). If you observe your cat preparing to hunt a bird, you’ll notice they make small chirping or chattering noises. In addition, their signature “meow” is a sound created purely for human attention, not a vocalization felines use in the wild. So it makes sense that your cat can also copy some common human words and phrases. Still, their fiercely independent nature means that they’ll likely be the ones to decide if and when they want to copy these vocalizations.