Implanting human vocal cords into an animal
would be a difficult and torturous experiment.
But even if someone managed to do it without
killing the poor animal, it wouldn’t work, because
the muscles and neurons that need to operate
those vocal chords would be missing. The brain
sends commands to our muscles to move, including
to those that orchestrate the fine movements of
our vocal chords.
But instead of thinking up Frankenstein like
experiments, we can look to animals that happen
to have highly developed vocal chords. Can
they speak? Turns out there are several
species that can imitate human voices, and
the winner is an African gray parrot, who
was trained by a cognitive scientist. Others that
seem to be able to mimic human speech include an
orangutan raised in captivity, an
elephant in a zoo and a beluga whale
in an aquarium. All of these animals have
different tricks up their sleeves to modulate
their quite advanced vocal tracts, but the main
reason they are able to imitate human sounds is
due to their vocal learning ability.
Similar to humans, these animals have a neural
circuit in their forebrain that is able to
control the muscles for vocalization. There are
also brain regions active when they recognize a
match between sounds from others with the sounds
of their own.
These animals seem capable of bridging the
language barrier that separates us. But can
they really "talk" as we do? It's not just a
matter of being able to make the sounds. To
really count as talking, the animals would have to
understand what they mean. An unfortunate
natural experiment occurs in some humans, who lose
their language ability due to brain damage from a
stroke, for example. They still have their vocal
chords intact, but they have Aphasia –
difficulty in expressing themselves when speaking,
trouble understanding speech, and difficulty with
reading and writing. So when it comes to
speaking, intact, human vocal cords are useless
without functioning language centers in the brain.
Click Here to return to the search form.