Did a beluga just learn to speak dolphin?

Whale shows of some impressive skills after only a few months of living with a pod of dolphins in captivity
beluga "So anyway, like I was saying earlier..." (© Daleen Loest | Dreamstime)

Many of us are able to speak more than one language. And even more of us wish that we could.


New languages are gateways to different cultures, different experiences, even different ways of thinking about how we express emotions. It's like having a whole extra side to your personality. Not to mention that experts say that learning a new language is one of the best brain workouts going.

If that's the case, get ready to hear about perhaps the brainiest whale going. A beluga that can speak bottlenose dolphin!

Bottlenose immersion

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After a difficult first few days, the dolphins fully accepted their beluga guest. They even let her swim with a newborn calf. (Getty Embed)

How did the beluga manage to do this? She went to Bottlenose Dolphin Immersion School...otherwise known as the Dolphinarium Koktebel in Crimea, Ukraine. The 4 year-old beluga recently had to be moved from a tank with other belugas to one where she was alone with a pod of dolphins.

Scientists were curious about how she would adapt, and things were a little awkward at first.

“The first appearance of the beluga in the dolphinarium caused a fright in the dolphins,” according to a report by Elena Panova and Alexandr Agafonov of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow. But things quickly improved after that and the marine mammals became friendly.

Dropping her own calls

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Could we one day speak with a beluga? (Getty Embed)

Most incredible though, was how fast the beluga shifted from her own calls to those of her dolphin buddies. Within two months, Panova and Agafonov said she was fully using dolphin-style calls.

What's the difference between the two dialects?

Belugas use calls that involve squeaks, vowel sounds, and two-toned noises. These dolphins, however, have more whistle-based calls. And this isn't the first instance of belugas showing off their impressive language skills.

Much like parrots, there are several studies showing that belugas can imitate the sounds of bird sounds, computers, and even human speech.

Listen to this recording from the late 1970s of Noc, a beluga that was being studied by the U.S. Navy.

Imitation or communication?

While Noc's "speech" may not be actual words, there is little mistaking it as the sounds of humans. And that's where things get a little more complicated with our beluga at Koktebel.

No one is saying that this beluga isn't able to make dolphin sounds. But is it truly "speaking" the language? Is it saying the right sounds at the right time to communicate meaning? Or is it more like Noc — making meaningless noises that are only based on the sounds of speech?

Scientists need more time to know for sure, though they say that the beluga has been fully accepted into the pod and seems to have mastered basic communication. In the end, if a beluga can both learn dolphin language and imitate human speech, there's reason to believe that something even bigger is possible.

A human being having a full conversation with a whale. And that would be un-beluga-ble, right?

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  1. I know French, but I want to learn Hindi. I want to learn cat. I SPECK Hindi. I want to learn French. bonjuor. I want to speak whale. I want to speak English fluently.

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