Do animals talk? Has G‑d gifted the power of speech to animals? We read stories such as Bilam’s talking donkey and about King Solomon knowing the language of the animals. We also read in Perek Shira that they sing praises to G‑d, is this to be taken literally?
Animals do not “talk”, nor do they have the “power of speech” per se, but they certainly do communicate.
For one thing, they communicate with each other through bodily reactions such as hair bristling or emitting various scents, and also through body language via various bodily movements or actions. They also communicate via sounds which convey a large variety of messages concerning mating, food supply, danger, etc.
However, from a Torah point of view, this is not considered language or speech, which is viewed as a special power or faculty that arises from the uniquely human soul that is lacking in animals.
This is based on the fact that the verse describing the creation of all living things refers to their vital force only as nefesh (animal soul) (Gen. 1:20), while human beings are described as having not only a nefesh, but also ruach (spirit) and neshama (intelligent soul) (Gen. 2:7).
That being said, animals have extra-sensory perception which gives them a heightened awareness above that of humans.
This is true on a physical plane such as animals sensing oncoming earthquakes, avalanches, storms or other natural phenomena. And while humans may not be directly aware of what’s happening, animals communicate these pending occurrences through their behavior to those who “know” their language.
So too on a spiritual plane, animals have a heightened sense of awareness which enables them to detect spiritual forces that humans are generally not aware of. One example of this is Bilam’s donkey, where even before it speaks, it was aware of the presence of the angel in its path, while the “prophet” had no idea of its presence and beat his “dumb” donkey for stubbornly stopping in its tracks. Similarly, the Talmud (Baba Kama 60b) asserts that dogs sense and react to the presence of the Angel of Death.
The Maharal explains (Be’er HaGolah, 5 p 98) that it is the very mental superiority of humans over animals which makes them less aware than animals of these subtle physical and spiritual phenomena. Their heightened intellect dulls or masks the intuitive sense. But just as animal behavior can communicate pending physical events, so too those who know how to read animals’ interactions with spiritual forces can receive prescience regarding events on the spiritual plane.
Generally, this is what is meant by Solomon or others understanding the language of the animals. Similarly, Jewish mystical sources, based on Scriptural verses, are replete with the idea, explanation why, and examples of, animals (particularly birds) communicating messages or portents from the spiritual realm.
Regarding the other examples you bring, in the case of Bilam’s donkey speaking, it seems that the animal actually did miraculously speak human language. But this is viewed as an exception. In fact, this “mouth of the donkey” (referring to the ability of Bilam’s donkey to speak) is described in Talmudic sources (Avot 5:6) as a special formulation from the inception of Creation.
In the case of Perek Shira, which identifies specific verses that are “sung” by various aspects of Creation to the Creator, this is not to be taken literally. Firstly, it includes the songs not only of animals but even of plants and inanimate objects which certainly do not communicate verbally or audibly. Secondly, many of the verses attributed as being “sung” are not from the Torah but rather from other parts of Scripture which certainly post-date the creations that “sing” them.
Rather, the understanding is that the actual existence of Creation is a symphony resounding with G‑dliness within which each part of Creation contributes its own unique melody. The nature and qualities of each part of Creation correspond to, are incorporated within, and are resounded by the specific verse ascribed to it. In this way, each part of Creation (just by being) and its respective verse (through language) harmoniously reverberate in duet their singular praise of the Creator.