September 22, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

According to a friend, people think we’ll be able to talk with dolphins within 5 years. After questioning his drinking habits (and a quick Google), it turns out he was right. Research has shown that once we get the basics of the ‘click click’ language of dolphin’s down, we’ll be able to hold full conversations with them in as little as five years time.

Will we be able to speak directly to this dolphin, and it its own language, soon?

Ten years ago, at the Dolphin Institute in Hawaii, Louis Herman found Dolphins could understand the difference between statements, questions, concepts like “zero” and that by changing the word order of a sentence you change its meaning. Then last year researchers at the Wild Dolphin Project in California, developed a method of communicating with dolphins via whistles and signals. The dolphins quickly learnt which signal stood for which object during half-hour sessions spent with the creatures. This meant humans could play fetch with the dolphins for specific toys.

Now, those same scientists have taken it a step further by creating a way for the dolphins to request the humans fetch them things back. They originally set up a huge keyboard with images on, which the dolphins could use to point out ‘requests’ such as seaweed to play with. This has progressed into advanced equipment divers wear around their necks which repeats a word coined to mean things like ‘seaweed’, until the dolphins repeat it back. The diver’s can’t do this themselves as dolphins clicks range to wavelengths far above those we are able to hear, and since they don’t turn their heads to look at who they’re speaking to, it’s hard to know which member of a school is speaking. Slowly, the team are building a new language which both dolphins and humans can understand.

The next step is to start listening out for specific pieces of language from the dolphins themselves so that they can start piecing together a dictionary of sorts, with which to translate the dolphins most intimate conversations. After that who knows what we could learn, the Dolphin Communication Research team, SpeakDolphin has come up with 20 suggestions they would like to ask dolphins first. ‘What name do you call yourselves?’ seems a bit mundane, but ‘are you in contact with life forms beyond this planet?’, seems much more like it.