You must have often heard a parrot imitate human speech with perfection – an impressive feat to carry out when even humans find it hard to speak masterfully. But how do the animals do it?
Animals that are able to talk like humans are all “vocal learners”. They hear sounds and learn how to imitate them. Besides humans, some of the most skilled vocal learners include parrots, songbirds, dolphins, and beluga whales.
The region of the brain that allows certain animals to imitate speech is the forebrain. According to research from the New York Academy of Sciences, the brain circuits in the forebrain help animals to learn new sounds and then use their vocal tract muscles to produce those sounds. Animals who aren’t vocal learners don’t have those particular brain circuits.
Animals that can talk are social species, and most of the animals that have this special skill develop it while they’re in captivity. Since they’re separated from their own kind, they interact with humans and pick up on their vocal cues and then learn how to speak themselves. They don’t realize what they are saying, but they do understand that it’s a way to interact with humans.
Sadly, if you talk to your dog, you probably won’t hear anything in return other than a bark. However, that doesn’t mean you’re left completely in the dark. Even your dog has ways of communicating things in its own woof-woof!