Researchers mixing Asian and European honeybees have shown that the bees can learn one another’s language to cooperate in finding food and bringing it back to the hive. In fact, according to the Telegraph, honeybees can pick up the new lingo even faster than humans. Some think there’s a lesson in this for people as well as bees: if we could learn to speak each other’s languages like the bees do, perhaps we’d get along better, too.
Scientists have known for a long time that honeybees communicate by wagging their bodies from side to side and moving at an angle to the sun, then looping back to do it all over again. Nobel-prize winning zoologist Karl von Frisch first described the “waggle dance” that scout bees use to show other bees the distance and direction of a food source, which may be as far as 600 meters from the hive. The world’s nine different honeybee species use slightly different waggles – analogous to different dialects among humans.
Now a team of Chinese, German and Australian scientists who introduced two geographically distant honeybee species and their different dialects into the same hive has shown that after interacting for a while, the bees are able to bridge the language barrier as they go about the communal task of gathering food.
The queen bee (yellow dot) is tended in this bilingual hive near Zhejiang University, in Hangzhou, China, by Asian (red dot) and European (green dot) bees
While entomologists – scientists who study the insect world – see this as a breakthrough in the study of animal communication, etymologists – scholars who study word derivations – have been more reserved in their reactions. “This is not the Rosetta comb by any means,” sniffed the linguist Noam Chomsky. “Maybe bees can dance – and that’s a big maybe," Chomsky added, "because Nureyev they are not – but only people can talk.”
Because they communicate through dancing, bees learning a new bee dialect are more likely to go to Arthur Murray than to Berlitz
As for the prospects of teaching a single language, a kind of bee Esperanto, to the world’s diminishing honeybee population, that may take some time, since mixing honeybees is hardly a recipe for creating a utopia. The different honeybee species don’t typically get along. According to the researchers, when first introduced to one another, “some hostile individuals began to attack and bite the other species' individuals.” Perhaps a sign of the impending decline of the West, after only a couple of days all the European bees had been attacked and had to be removed from the hive. The scientists then had to get rid of the troublemakers and sedate the rest of the bees by spraying them with megadoses of honey water in order to restore harmony to the colony.
Like the honeybees, humans can be clannish, suspicious, and unwelcoming to foreigners. And like the bees, we’ve been known to attack speakers of another language or dialect, especially when they get too close. Many etymologists illustrate the clash produced by languages in contact by pointing to Quebec, while others are simply content to retell the biblical story of the shibboleth.
Shibboleth is a Hebrew word meaning ‘an ear of grain’ or ‘a stream in flood.’ But its actual meaning doesn't matter. What counts is how it's pronounced. In the Old Testament, as the Ephraimites fled from the conquering Gileadites, Gileadite border guards asked anyone trying to cross the Jordan to say the word shibboleth. The Ephraimites spoke a dialect which lacked the sh sound, and so they pronounced the word as sibboleth, a dialect distinction which led to their undoing:
When those Ephraimites which were escaped said, Let me go over; that the men of Gilead said unto him, Art thou an Ephraimite? If he said, Nay; then said they unto him, Say now Shibboleth: and he said Sibboleth: for he could not frame to pronounce it right. Then they took him, and slew him at the passages of Jordan: and there fell at that time of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand. (Judges 12, King James translation).
Of course, as we learn from the bees, and sometimes from our high school foreign language classes, it may be possible for some people to learn a second language successfully, pronunciation, grammar, idiom and all. But it turns out that even the most fluent bilinguals can reveal their true identities in a test that’s much more sophisticated than just asking them to say shibboleth.
It seems that brain waves can reveal what the tongue may try to hide. Three researchers at Italy’s National Research Council have shown that highly-accomplished simultaneous translators produce subtle brain-wave differences when using their first language, Italian, and their second language, English, even though the translators are equally competent in the two tongues.
When hooked up to an EEG and shown individual words on a screen, the translators’ brainwaves spiked higher when they saw Italian than when they saw English, and their brains were able to distinguish Italian words some 100 to 150 milliseconds faster than English words. It took them even longer to figure out words in their third language, German, but then again, German is known for its very long words (Proverbio et al, Biological Psychology 2008, in press).
Prof. Alice Mado Proverbio, of Milano-Bicocca University, told reporters that brainwave studies “could also be of use one day in questioning refugee applicants or terror suspects to determine their origin.” The aptly-named Prof. Proverbio's findings are good news for today’s border guards and other professional interrogators, who may soon be adding the electroencephalograph to the other important tools of their trade, the fingerprint, the eyeball scan, the lie detector, and, of course, the waterboard.
So whether we all wind up speaking one language the world over, or we all become multilingual like the bees, or at least like those bees who have been sedated enough to get along, our brains will still betray our first language, processing it milliseconds faster than you can say amo, amas, amat, or its Esperanto equivalent.
The TSA may soon start scanning our brains as well as our baggage when we try to board a plane
Waterboarding, a tool of the Spanish Inquisition, is still popular with today’s hi-tech interrogators