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Student Question

I need help determining whether the scenario below is an example of communication or language.

Scenario A: Jason is blind and has epilepsy. He has a guide dog named Bo who assists him. Bo usually responds to commands from Jason. At times, Jason gives Bo the command to cross the street, but Bo disobeys if Jason has misjudged the traffic and it is not safe to cross.

Bo can also sense when Jason is about to have an epileptic seizure. The dog becomes agitated and begins to whine; although this is something he has not been trained to do. At times, he has left Jason and alerted others that his human companion needs help.


Expert Answers

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Your scenario shows a great example of communication, which is traditionally defined as the act of giving and receiving (encoding and decoding) information. The exchange that takes place in your scenario clearly denotes that a human has trained the dog with a series of commands that have become internalized by the animal, to the point that the dog acts innately to those commands.

Although there seems to be a system of sounds, symbols and signals that resemble what call a "language", the reality is that the dog and the human are not sharing the type of information commonly pertaining language usage, which includes the sharing of information, thoughts, and feelings; the faculty of using language in this manner is precisely what separates humans from animals. Therefore, there is much more to language than the mere existence of its sounds, symbols and signs; it also entails the interconnection of cognitive, psychological, social, and interactive dynamics. This is the reason why the scenario above illustrates communication, instead of language.

Another way to view this is by realizing that there is a specific purpose in the way that the human and the animal are communicating. The animal has been trained to perform specific tasks, which are prompted by the verbal commands that the dog has learned to obey. There is no spontaneity of thought or analytical discourse in the communication between the human and the dog. Although it is entirely possible that the animal has made a sort of emotional connection with the owner, the study of ethology (animal communication) may argue that the expression of the animal has very little to do with what is traditional language as it is commonly defined.

It is safe to conclude, however, that the meaning of language and communication can often become confusing. Yet, both terms should not be used interchangeably.

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