Project #232 – Half Baked Idea Speech

I ran across an interesting announcement via I Heart PGH, the Waffle Shop will be holding a speech competition for visionary ideas. For those of you unfamiliar with the Waffle Shop, it’s a place to buy breakfast and a talk show. The examples of visionary ideas they gave were not very conventional (“a way for animals to run governments”, “a cloning system that reinvents history”), so I came up with my own half-baked, impractical idea and sent it in.

How to Teach Animals to Speak the King’s English

Wouldn’t the world be a better place if animals had better manners? Deer would no longer leap in front of cars on the highway, ants would await invitations before attending picnics, and the insult of pigeon poop would be a distant memory. The only way to encourage animals to embrace politeness is on a being-to-being level. That is, we must learn to communicate with animals and get them to communicate back with us. The trans-species conversation could spur on better human stewardship of the environment, more understanding for endangered species, and help teach barbaric-mannered animals to be more considerate.

But are animals capable of the higher order brain functions needed to produce the King’s English? Consider this: the computer on your desktop at home has about the same intelligence capacity as a frog. It has a number of bits in its memory chips comparable to the number of neurons in the frog’s brain. Your computer has the power to correct your spelling and grammar as well as look up words in dictionaries containing millions of entries. Not only that, your computer has the capacity to let you play games, do your taxes, and remind you to send your mother flowers for her birthday, among millions of other tasks it is capable of performing. We are not asking the average frog to fill out a 1040, we are asking it to have a simple conversation and comment on the weather, something a the average computer is capable of doing.

Certainly, we have had other friends in the animal kingdom who have already learned to converse with us, for instance Koko the gorilla or Alex the African gray parrot. Additionally, it is a historical fact that Alexander Graham Bell taught his family dog to say “How are you grandma?” Now, that is not only functional and polite, but also respectful of the elderly.

There are several layers of functionality to a language. That is, any language must be learned (in ascending order of complexity) phonetically (sounds), lexically (words), morpho-syntactically (grammar), and pragmatically (intention and discourse structure). By tracing along this pathway, starting with sounds and words and ending with polite conversation, we can teach nearly any animal to communicate with us from the humble grasshopper to the mighty elephant.

Of course, we practice what we teach. My husband and I care for three Rhode Island Red chickens who are currently undergoing lessons in elocution and table manners. They have brains the size of peanuts and yet the are keenly aware of the goings on in their tiny backyard and are prone to gossip, a habit we are trying to mend.

We took a cue from Mr. Bell and his talking dog in order to train our chickens. In order to prepare his dog for speech he first trained it to growl continuously before teaching it specific sounds. We used pumpkin seeds to encourage the utterance of specific phonemes. We knew off hand that they could say ‘buk buk’, which gave us two important consonants, Through a system of rewards we managed to get them to say ‘rrr’, ‘mmm’, ‘nnn’, and so forth until they were prepared to form words and then sentences.

I propose to teach these methods in detail to a live audience. I hope in the end help spread good grammar and fine manners throughout the animal kingdom and build a new era of communication.

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