Elephants Grasp on the Human Language


It would seem that those big ears are not just for show as elephants can do so much more with them than just listen. It has been discovered that an elephant can figure out an individual’s gender, ethnicity and even differentiate between languages.

Humans use sounds to understand the world around them. There is a lot that someone can learn about a complete stranger from just their voice. The most basic features that can be determined are age and gender and based on different accents and ethnic dialects. It has also been observed that by listening to recorded voices humans can precisely determine the physical strengths of the individuals those voices belong to.

There are many animals who use the same ability to survive in the wild. They use these very sounds to identify when a predator is near or even to communicate and interact with each other. Many observations reveal that a number of animals use variations in sounds to transmit different messages.

Elephants however have taken it to a whole new level. It is even indicated that they might have a better understanding of the human language than humans themselves. To test the theory, a number of recordings were played to elephants at the Amboseli National Park in Kenya. These included voices from two different tribes and from both genders. One of the tribe was the Masai tribe while the other was the Kamba tribe.

Masai men are usually cattle herders who always come in conflict with the elephants over drinking grounds. These conflicts usually end with a death of one or the other. Kamba men on the other hand are most often employees at the national park or farmers, and do not pose so much of a threat. Even though men from these different groups speak two different languages, each were asked to repeat the same thing to keep consistency.

Elephants, upon hearing the voices of Masai men, began gathering together as if to form a protective group. They also started to move away from the voices and cautiously moved to a distance. They however did not show much concern when the recordings of Kamba men or Masai women and children were played.

Graeme Shannon at the University of Sussex said that the elephant’s ability to recognize the same sentence spoken in two different languages is proof that they can easily discern the difference in human languages. It might not mean that they understand what was being said, but seem to have a clear idea on who said it.

Conservation Biologist Keith Lindsay said that it is rather intriguing as to what these elephants are capable of. Instead of fleeing in terror like most animals do at the sight of humans, elephants simply moved away cautiously but did not run.

Elephants are known for their intelligence and keen intellect. Sadly, the biggest land mammals are shrinking in population. Growing incidents of hunting and poaching have almost brought these magnificent creatures to the brink of extinction. Hunted for their ivory tusk, their numbers in the wild diminish day by day.

The author of several books on animal behavior, Frans van der Waal, said that understanding how they behave in the world around them or how they adapt to the growing threats will further light the path to effectively save elephants in the wild.

By Hammad Ali


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