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How To Learn Sign Language

Could we speak the language of dolphins? | Denise Herzing

Translator: Joseph Geni
Reviewer: Morton Bast Well, now we’re going to the Bahamas to meet a remarkable group of dolphins that I’ve been working with in the wild for the last 28 years. Now I’m interested in dolphins because of their large brains and what they might be doing with all that brainpower in the wild. And we know they use some of that brainpower for just living complicated lives, but what do we really know about dolphin intelligence? Well, we know a few things. We know that their brain-to-body ratio, which is a physical measure of intelligence, is second only to humans. Cognitively, they can understand artificially-created languages. And they pass self-awareness tests in mirrors. And in some parts of the world, they use tools, like sponges to hunt fish. But there’s one big question left: do they have a language, and if so, what are they talking about? So decades ago, not years ago, I set out to find a place in the world where I could observe dolphins underwater to try to crack the code of their communication system. Now in most parts of the world, the water’s pretty murky, so it’s very hard to observe animals underwater, but I found a community of dolphins that live in these beautiful, clear, shallow sandbanks of the Bahamas which are just east of Florida. And they spend their daytime resting and socializing in the safety of the shallows, but at night, they go off the edge and hunt in deep water. Now, it’s not a bad place to be a researcher, either. So we go out for about five months every summer in a 20-meter catamaran, and we live, sleep and work at sea for weeks at a time. My main tool is an underwater video with a hydrophone, which is an underwater microphone, and this is so I can correlate sound and behavior. And most of our work’s pretty non-invasive. We try to follow dolphin etiquette while we’re in the water, since we’re actually observing them physically in the water. Now, Atlantic spotted dolphins are a really nice species to work with for a couple of reasons. They’re born without spots, and they get spots with age, and they go through pretty distinct developmental phases, so that’s fun to track their behavior. And by about the age of 15, they’re fully spotted black and white. Now the mother you see here is Mugsy. She’s 35 years old in this shot, but dolphins can actually live into their early 50s. And like all the dolphins in our community, we photographed Mugsy and tracked her little spots and nicks in her dorsal fin, and also the unique spot patterns as she matured over time. Now, young dolphins learn a lot as they’re growing up, and they use their teenage years to practice social skills, and at about the age of nine, the females become sexually mature, so they can get pregnant, and the males mature quite a bit later, at around 15 years of age. And dolphins are very promiscuous, and so we have to determine who the fathers are, so we do paternity tests by collecting fecal material out of the water and extracting DNA. So what that means is, after 28 years, we are tracking three generations, including grandmothers and grandfathers. Now, dolphins are natural acousticians. They make sounds 10 times as high and hear sounds 10 times as high as we do. But they have other communication signals they use. They have good vision, so they use body postures to communicate. They have taste, not smell. And they have touch. And sound can actually be felt in the water, because the acoustic impedance of tissue and water’s about the same. So dolphins can buzz and tickle each other at a distance. Now, we do know some things about how sounds are used with certain behaviors. Now, the signature whistle is a whistle that’s specific to an individual dolphin, and it’s like a name. (Dolphin whistling noises) And this is the best-studied sound, because it’s easy to measure, really, and you’d find this whistle when mothers and calves are reuniting, for example. Another well studied sound are echolocation clicks. This is the dolphin’s sonar. (Dolphin echolocation noises) And they use these clicks to hunt and feed. But they can also tightly pack these clicks together into buzzes and use them socially. For example, males will stimulate a female during a courtship chase. You know, I’ve been buzzed in the water. (Laughter) Don’t tell anyone. It’s a secret. And you can really feel the sound. That was my point with that. (Laughter) So dolphins are also political animals, so they have to resolve conflicts. (Dolphin noises) And they use these burst-pulsed sounds as well as their head-to-head behaviors when they’re fighting. And these are very unstudied sounds because they’re hard to measure. Now this is some video of a typical dolphin fight. (Dolphin noises) So you’re going to see two groups, and you’re going to see the head-to-head posturing, some open mouths, lots of squawking. There’s a bubble. And basically, one of these groups will kind of back off and everything will resolve fine, and it doesn’t really escalate into violence too much. Now, in the Bahamas, we also have resident bottlenose that interact socially with the spotted dolphins. For example, they babysit each other’s calves. The males have dominance displays that they use when they’re chasing each other’s females. And the two species actually form temporary alliances when they’re chasing sharks away. And one of the mechanisms they use to communicate their coordination is synchrony. They synchronize their sounds and their body postures to look bigger and sound stronger. (Dolphins noises) Now, these are bottlenose dolphins, and you’ll see them starting to synchronize their behavior and their sounds. (Dolphin noises) You see, they’re synchronizing with their partner as well as the other dyad. I wish I was that coordinated. Now, it’s important to remember that you’re only hearing the human-audible parts of dolphin sounds, and dolphins make ultrasonic sounds, and we use special equipment in the water to collect these sounds. Now, researchers have actually measured whistle complexity using information theory, and whistles rate very high relative to even human languages. But burst-pulsed sounds is a bit of a mystery. Now, these are three spectragrams. Two are human words, and one is a dolphin vocalizing. So just take a guess in your mind which one is the dolphin. Now, it turns out burst-pulsed sounds actually look a bit like human phonemes. Now, one way to crack the code is to interpret these signals and figure out what they mean, but it’s a difficult job, and we actually don’t have a Rosetta Stone yet. But a second way to crack the code is to develop some technology, an interface to do two-way communication, and that’s what we’ve been trying to do in the Bahamas and in real time. Now, scientists have used keyboard interfaces to try to bridge the gap with species including chimpanzees and dolphins. This underwater keyboard in Orlando, Florida, at the Epcot Center, was actually the most sophisticated ever two-way interface designed for humans and dolphins to work together under the water and exchange information. So we wanted to develop an interface like this in the Bahamas, but in a more natural setting. And one of the reasons we thought we could do this is because the dolphins were starting to show us a lot of mutual curiosity. They were spontaneously mimicking our vocalizations and our postures, and they were also inviting us into dolphin games. Now, dolphins are social mammals, so they love to play, and one of their favorite games is to drag seaweed, or sargassum in this case, around. And they’re very adept. They like to drag it and drop it from appendage to appendage. Now in this footage, the adult is Caroh. She’s 25 years old here, and this is her newborn, Cobalt, and he’s just learning how to play this game. (Dolphin noises) She’s kind of teasing him and taunting him. He really wants that sargassum. Now, when dolphins solicit humans for this game, they’ll often sink vertically in the water, and they’ll have a little sargassum on their flipper, and they’ll sort of nudge it and drop it sometimes on the bottom and let us go get it, and then we’ll have a little seaweed keep away game. But when we don’t dive down and get it, they’ll bring it to the surface and they’ll sort of wave it in front of us on their tail and drop it for us like they do their calves, and then we’ll pick it up and have a game. And so we started thinking, well, wouldn’t it be neat to build some technology that would allow the dolphins to request these things in real time, their favorite toys? So the original vision was to have a keyboard hanging from the boat attached to a computer, and the divers and dolphins would activate the keys on the keypad and happily exchange information and request toys from each other. But we quickly found out that dolphins simply were not going to hang around the boat using a keyboard. They’ve got better things to do in the wild. They might do it in captivity, but in the wild — So we built a portable keyboard that we could push through the water, and we labeled four objects they like to play with, the scarf, rope, sargassum, and also had a bow ride, which is a fun activity for a dolphin. (Whistle) And that’s the scarf whistle, which is also associated with a visual symbol. And these are artificially created whistles. They’re outside the dolphin’s normal repertoire, but they’re easily mimicked by the dolphins. And I spent four years with my colleagues Adam Pack and Fabienne Delfour, working out in the field with this keyboard using it with each other to do requests for toys while the dolphins were watching. And the dolphins could get in on the game. They could point at the visual object, or they could mimic the whistle. Now this is video of a session. The diver here has a rope toy, and I’m on the keyboard on the left, and I’ve just played the rope key, and that’s the request for the toy from the human. So I’ve got the rope, I’m diving down, and I’m basically trying to get the dolphin’s attention, because they’re kind of like little kids. You have to keep their attention. I’m going to drop the rope, see if they come over. Here they come, and then they’re going to pick up the rope and drag it around as a toy. Now, I’m at the keyboard on the left, and this is actually the first time that we tried this. I’m going to try to request this toy, the rope toy, from the dolphins using the rope sound. Let’s see if they might actually understand what that means. (Whistle) That’s the rope whistle. Up come the dolphins, and drop off the rope, yay. Wow. (Applause) So this is only once. We don’t know for sure if they really understand the function of the whistles. Okay, so here’s a second toy in the water. This is a scarf toy, and I’m trying to lead the dolphin over to the keyboard to show her the visual and the acoustic signal. Now this dolphin, we call her “the scarf thief,” because over the years she’s absconded with about 12 scarves. In fact, we think she has a boutique somewhere in the Bahamas. So I’m reaching over. She’s got the scarf on her right side. And we try to not touch the animals too much, we really don’t want to over-habituate them. And I’m trying to lead her back to the keyboard. And the diver there is going to activate the scarf sound to request the scarf. So I try to give her the scarf. Whoop. Almost lost it. But this is the moment where everything becomes possible. The dolphin’s at the keyboard. You’ve got full attention. And this sometimes went on for hours. And I wanted to share this video with you not to show you any big breakthroughs, because they haven’t happened yet, but to show you the level of intention and focus that these dolphins have, and interest in the system. And because of this, we really decided we needed some more sophisticated technology. So we joined forces with Georgia Tech, with Thad Starner’s wearable computing group, to build us an underwater wearable computer that we’re calling CHAT. [CHAT: Cetacean Hearing And Telemetry] Now, instead of pushing a keyboard through the water, the diver’s wearing the complete system, and it’s acoustic only, so basically the diver activates the sounds on a keypad on the forearm, the sounds go out through an underwater speaker, if a dolphin mimics the whistle or a human plays the whistle, the sounds come in and are localized by two hydrophones. The computer can localize who requested the toy if there’s a word match. And the real power of the system is in the real-time sound recognition, so we can respond to the dolphins quickly and accurately. And we’re at prototype stage, but this is how we hope it will play out. So Diver A and Diver B both have a wearable computer and the dolphin hears the whistle as a whistle, the diver hears the whistle as a whistle in the water, but also as a word through bone conduction. So Diver A plays the scarf whistle or Diver B plays the sargassum whistle to request a toy from whoever has it. What we hope will happen is that the dolphin mimics the whistle, and if Diver A has the sargassum, if that’s the sound that was played and requested, then the diver will give the sargassum to the requesting dolphin and they’ll swim away happily into the sunset playing sargassum for forever. Now, how far can this kind of communication go? Well, CHAT is designed specifically to empower the dolphins to request things from us. It’s designed to really be two-way. Now, will they learn to mimic the whistles functionally? We hope so and we think so. But as we decode their natural sounds, we’re also planning to put those back into the computerized system. For example, right now we can put their own signature whistles in the computer and request to interact with a specific dolphin. Likewise, we can create our own whistles, our own whistle names, and let the dolphins request specific divers to interact with. Now it may be that all our mobile technology will actually be the same technology that helps us communicate with another species down the road. In the case of a dolphin, you know, it’s a species that, well, they’re probably close to our intelligence in many ways and we might not be able to admit that right now, but they live in quite a different environment, and you still have to bridge the gap with the sensory systems. I mean, imagine what it would be like to really understand the mind of another intelligent species on the planet. Thank you. (Applause)

100 Replies to “Could we speak the language of dolphins? | Denise Herzing”

  • You've just wasted your life. Just leave dolphins alone. It's of no benefit to us how they
    communicate. All this is, is a way of so called scientists to spend
    their working lives somewhere nice and sunny and is a complete waste of

  • You've just wasted your life. Just leave dolphins alone. It's of no benefit to us how they
    communicate. All this is, is a way of so called scientists to spend
    their working lives somewhere nice and sunny and is a complete waste of

  • They wouldn't value material things like we do. Their 'house' is the sea, the groceries are all fresh all the time… what is life in an ocean like for a thinking being? And is that a gulf(heh) that language can bridge? Denise et al. will if it is at all possible

  • Hey, if those scientists in Godzilla: KOTM's found a way to communicate with Kaiju, then a Dolphin is Algebra.

  • I love that more and more of the human population is accepting that animals can sentient, and also have their own personal feelings, experiences, and lives. It's been proven that several animals are capable of empathy, which is a complex emotional state, and my personal opinion is that most mammals are emotional creatures. I look at my cats and generally know how they're feeling…. I would love the chance to communicate with them.

    I'm here for it.

  • Man that's amazing!!! Goes to show you how hard it would be to communicate with aliens. especially without technology. So this is the first version of what they call the universal translator in star trek. Well, not the first version. the first version is the translator app on smartphones used between human languages. but this is the first to be used between another species. lol just amazing!!! The future is now guys!

  • You need me to develop AI for you, that will figure out what their whistles mean.

    I'm actually trying to do this with birds right now.

    My belief is, you need to focus on the emotional content of the sound, as the language of animals is not logical reason, it's emotional reasoning.

    Logic is a fun game, but not their natural setting.

    With birds, each mating pair had 2 distinct languages, their chicks learn a hybrid mix of the 2 different chirps from the mother and father.

    The result is, each family of birds has 3 languages the mother's, the fathers, and the children. This pattern of education then repeats through each generation, making entire family units identifiable through their distinctive language with high precision of who is the parents.

    The calls then mimic certain patterns for different meanings.

    Alert or Danger
    Where are you
    Reply, I am here
    Stay Away

    The basic communication seems to be through the communication with posturing to display intent, with tone inflection.

    The intent seems to be always emotional.

    With birds the primative flight or fight is weighted by familiarity, trust is established by assistance and perseverance.

    My observation is, though the brain is primative, consciousness and deliberate actions are present.

    Much like a child who is too young to have had dramatic experiences, their trust is too high for their own good.

    The reflex of flight or scared, is very similar to children at a young age who spontaneously decide to kick and flail their arms, it's the brain creating the necessary experience to perfect the action when needed.

  • Communication and Language are not the same thing. Humans have language, dolphins communicate. Lost me in under a minute.

  • Its looking like we dont have the processingprogramming power for this. Pretty good scam for paid vacations to the Bahamas though.

  • YES On June 17th, the BBC will debut a new documentary, The Girl Who Talked to Dolphins. It's the story of Margaret Howe Lovatt, who in the 1960s took part in a NASA-funded research project, in which she developed an unusual relationship with a dolphin named Peter. A relationship that at times became sexual.

  • Idk if this is normal but i can make dolphin clicking sound by pressing my tongue against my gum trapping air, and by pressing my toungue against the gum the air escapes and then the sound appears and once i was in an Animal rescue park the dolphin reacted to the sound and actually replied lol

  • Normally I'd just get jealous about someone having a job like that . . . . . but she respects them and just quietly hasn't assumed that we are cleverer. Fair deal.

  • It is possible that A.I. could decipher Dolphinese but I do not think the humanity can wrap it's simian brain around it. Not enough intersection of environment but one never knows.

  • When we finally learn how to communicate with cetaceans we'll find out they hate our fucking guts for over-breeding and turning the oceans into a plastic shithole.

  • Tickle at a distance. ? That could be good or bad. We will need a whole new set of laws…subway ticklers etc.

  • All the intelligence leads to seaweed ball. All species are doomed to budweiser and jeeps until the asteroid puts us out of our misery.

  • Imagine being close to our intelligence…okey dokey…the results were not pretty. Imagine being dumber than dumb and dumber. Imagine being at disney land where parents punch each other out over a dropped ice cream cone or at burger world over a burger with an unwanted pickle. Imagine animals that are smart but will rip your face off in a jealous rage. Imagine that even in our world knowledge is over rated as in Nietsche, and truth. Imagine that.

  • Hunting and killing of cetaceans must be forbidden and pursued as homicide. Yes, we don't know for sure which species are sentient and which are not, and even if there are non-sentient species among them, but to be on the safe side, no cetacean must be killed in vain.

  • My guardian dogs went crazy when they heard the dolphin clicks. Interesting. They hear all kinds of sounds from my tablet all day but were triggered into barking for the first time at the sound of your dolphins.

  • My grandmother used to tell me when they were young thier parents use something like whistle at the sea fish when they blow the dolphins will chase the fishes to the river bank they feed while they catch the fishes.

  • I can save you a lot of time and money: they're talking about where the fish are at, and who's fucking who.

  • The Dolphins are in extremes, they are in the womb of the sea, but they are not in the "wild", we are, we are in the wild, in the deadliest and most confusing world one might imagine. I wish I were a Dolphin.

  • This is Cacophony.. this is like trying to teach puppies.. but a half dozen of them.. with 4 people in the pen making constant movements. Not going to happen.
    LIke completely wild dogs that cant be trained.. there is a tiny fraction of a second between stimulus of opportunity and unless you hijack that moment you are not going to reach it.
    Parrots.. sure thing to put a memory in a birds head is by the attention that came with it. Kinda like birds who curse, or yell "mom!"
    in a wild setting this is never going to happen.. unless you could cue a toy from a hidden cabinet. Why even try to use dolphin language, theres already a language.. blathering would just go in the opposite direction of what youre trying to accomplish. give them something unique, to command that attention. Light show. whatever color they can see. moving lights, different colors and designs that focus to a deposition of a toy.
    do they have developed taste receptors? whatever the aquatic equivalent of the olfactory system. Buttons/lights that give them a blast of some stank. squid perfume, dolphin booty, whatever. instaneous, out of the ordinary, deliberate on the senses stimulus… built on a two way trigger.

    lets think outside the blowhole people

  • imagine to understand the minds of intelligence of other species on another planet. well ms… i think alien is actually observing us as we observing other species here on earth.

  • The title: "Could we speak the language of dolphins?" would be answered with: "No, we cannot".

    This video does show that we can train dolphins to understand our 'language', although it is nothing but a designed sound, tailored for them.

    Could we truelly understand 'their' language? I mean, not by training them, but by train ourselves to understand what they are saying to eachother, or even to us? And find a way to talk back in their language, using our technology? Could it be possible, that one day we type our message in a smartphone and it will be translated into 'dolphin'? For me, that is true/full communication not just partial communication, or even animal training.

    We were able to learn forgotten, ancient languages with visual help ( wall drawings, etc ) and the fact that these cultures were human too. It's easier to empathize a language when they were humans, like us. While it is harder to emphatize with dolphins, we have one bonus compared with ancient languages: We don't need wall drawings to look for evidence: Dolphins are alive. We can and are studying them, right now.

    All I want to know, is if it is possible or not to communicate with them without 'training them'. But just by communicating with them, using THEIR own form of communication. Is it possible to translate theirs, so why can translate ours to them? Ofcourse, taking their intelligence level vs. ours in consideration. (Simple communication)

  • Pfft, wait. If the Dolphins sit vertical to say "I'm talking human," is that racism? Are they using a species slur?

  • Yes! A Ph.D in linguistics has PROVEN that Dolphin's language is communicating logical thoughts with meaning and is not just gibberish! Their clicks and language is a true transfer of knowledge back and forth in a conversational and is shared communication!

  • The most important thing I’ve learned from this talk is that I’ve chosen my profession really wrong.
    I could be playing with dolphins instead, dammit!!

  • There are those of us that speak dog, horse, cow, etc. Get a country boy, and put him with the animals. I speak cat, dog, horse, cow, and sadly sheep. I think the language of dolphins is far to complicated for me (I still have trouble with Spanish) but find a country boy that is a "whisperer" and they will get it.


    Hello Madame Denise Herzing, this link takes you to an amazing man whom has developed his own form of human Sonar due to his blindness. Truly a remarkable use of all the senses available to him.
    I believe sounds behaves differently underwater so perhaps some familiarisation is in order, but I see no reason why if he agrees to help that he could attempt to listen and interpret the dolphins in captivity.
    Alternatively send him some dolphin sounds maybe he might understand some of it.
    His echolocation is partly visual to him. Perhaps he might see what they describe?
    Maybe the two are un connective but he may be in a unique position to crack the Dolphin Enigma.
    Here's wishing you well. Tom Saunderson

  • Read these books by Dr. John C Lilly Dolphins Humans of the Sea. Communications Between Man and Dolphin. I read his books in the late 1970s and have done way more then you have on the intelligence of the Cetaceans.Dr. Lilly was a neurology scientist and worked with dolphins on communications between their species and us. Orcas are the largest dolphins and have complex communications and different dialects in the oceans of the world. One of the smartest Cetaceans is the Sperm whale. Cetaceans can communicate with each other. Dr. Lilly has discovered these facts about Cetaceans 50 years ago and now you are rediscovering some of the facts known half a century ago or more.

  • The only significant comment on dolphins made by Ms. Denise Herzing, came at the end – "Imagine communicating with another animal in his/her environment" ! 🙂

  • Old Stuff, In India they Passed Laws Forbidding Dolphins To be kept in Captivity,Tums out The University found Their Language is more complicated than Ours , They Have been Re-classed as Non Human Beings ,…

  • And then the Japanese ate them. The end. Disgusted by anyone's culture excuse. No animal should be killed just because it's been done for such a long time.

  • This is a very interesting way of tackling communication, but we have a God-given ability to communicste with all animals and plants that Adam and Eve threw away but Yavashua took it back to us. In other words, this ability has been returned to us by Yavashua Jesus Christ of Nazareth but 97% of Christians haven't figured that out yet. People of other religions haven't figured it out much, either.
    The language starts and ends with love. ❤😌🐎🐃🌳

  • train female dolphins to use human-dolphin communication systems(keyboards and human designated whistles) in captivity where the environment is controlled and then bring them out to the wild and introduce them to a wild study group where the other dolphins can learn the new systems from them.

  • I know this might be a stupid question, but why don't they transpose the ultra-high-pitched dolphin sounds down a few octaves, to a pitch that humans can comfortably hear?

  • I wonder, in a few hundred years, if we're speaking fluently with the dolphins, and if we showed them this video, how they would react to it…
    Like: "Oh god. Is that how we used to speak to each other? How embarrassing."

  • If they are so smart how come they can't jump fishermen nets label on water, Or flee fast after they hear the killer whale hunting sound and more ? Of course you can train them just like a dog.

  • It's really not hard to imagine first plant life on other exoplanets we've either discovered and what more there could be – how similar or different could life on another similar planet be?

  • imagine being high with a dolphin talking about aliens. And then you wake up from the trip. There is no dolphin sitting in the sofa with you.

  • Fantastic!!!
    Well that's until the evil bastards industrial military complex hijack and use this to abuse these beautiful creatures- if this was my research I would not release it

  • Meanwhile the Military is just sitting there and waiting for you to develop a fully functional way of communicating with another intelligent species to use them as living torpedoes.
    It'd be better to just leave them alone, for their own sake.

  • I get them understanding our language, but I googled this because I was curious. Meanwhile.. in 2013 😂😂😂
    I watch Ted Talks yet never came across this one!

  • Did she Really say dolphins are very promiscuous? Dolphins might be sexually active and have multiple partners, but to say they are ho-bags? Cmon girl. Rings don't go on flippers.

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