14 April 2009

College class in animal communications

mixed-media collage by Steve Porter, co-author of The Concrete Jungle Book

…from North Texas Daily:

New class explores aspects of animal communication
By: Carolyn Brown
Posted: 4/14/09

Students interested in learning about animal communications will have a new option this fall with LING 4800, a course designed to focus on the ways animals communicate with one another and humans.

Jenifer Larson-Hall of the linguistics faculty will teach the course, which consists of in-class sessions and an online portion designed by Elizabeth Graham, also of the linguistics faculty, Larson-Hall said. Provost Wendy Wilkins asked the linguistics department to develop the course based on a similar class she developed in a previous job, Larson-Hall said.

The course is open to students of all majors and has no prerequisites.

LING 4800 will examine both verbal and nonverbal communication such as sign language, which has been successfully taught to primates. Animals that learn new communication methods from humans sometimes attempt to use them with other animals, Larson-Hall said.

"Some of the linguists who have taught primates to use sign language say they'll teach it to their offspring," she said.

The class will also examine concepts such as animal IQs, theory of mind and the cultures of different species.

"We are going to talk about how we define language," Larson-Hall said. "We'll look at how linguists have defined language to exclude animals."

Undeclared graduate student Samra Bufkins said she is considering the course for her fall schedule. Bufkins has spent more than 20 years working with animals as a volunteer for the Texas Marine Mammal Stranding Network and the Fort Worth Zoo, among other organizations, and has seen firsthand the many ways in which animals communicate.

"I think it would be useful for anyone who wants to work with animals, environmental management and teaching," Bufkins said. "It would have a lot of applications for a lot of things."

Animals can communicate verbally through activities such as singing or nonverbally through actions like dances, she said. These exchanges can serve a number of purposes, including mating rituals and group protection.

"When meerkats are out scrounging for food, one is always on the lookout, and that one has a signal to warn others of danger," she said.

Bufkins is working on her certification to teach English as a second language and said it might be useful to use people's pets for analogies when teaching classes.

While volunteering for the Texas Marine Mammal Stranding Network, she helped train a dolphin to work as a therapy animal and said she was impressed by its show of intelligence.

"Every few hours, volunteers would go in the water for playtime," she said. "He recognized different individuals."

Bufkins and another friend could play energetically with the dolphin, but other volunteers preferred gentler activity, a trend it learned to recognize.

"They're almost scary they're so smart," she said.

The class could also have practical applications for people working with their pets, Bufkins said.

"Whenever you train an animal, that's communication," she said.

© Copyright 2009 North Texas Daily

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