Can Chimpanzee’s Learn
Language ?
Humans have assumed one difference
between themselves and other animals.
Onbonobohe main assumptions in the
20th century is that humans differ from
animals in the use of language. Some
scientists have been trying to prove that
language does exist in animals by
conducting experiments with
chimpanzees, but their findings are still
being disputed.
Language does not have a universally
accepted definition because there are
so many different aspects included in
the term (grammar, symbol usage, the
ability to represent real-world, and
ability to articulate something new).
One definition of language is that it is an
infinitely open system of
Some people say that what an ape does
is not language. If those people are
saying that language defines humans
and an ape can learn sign language,
then they are saying that deaf people
who use sign language are not human.
Many apes have been taught how to
use sign language and a form of picture
symbols to communicate, but no one
has been able to teach them to speak.
Some believe that is due to their lower
intelligence, but it is more likely that the
apes have very different vocal cords
which are not built for speaking. For
whatever reason it was decided that
apes could not speak, the next obvious
step was to teach them sign language.
Why Teach Language
To Apes?
Since the theory of evolution became
known and accepted by many
individuals, some scientists sought to
find new ways to separate humans
from animals. Humans are generally
thought to be the only animals that
use complex language. By studying
if apes can learn language, scientists
were hoping to shed some light on
the nature of language, cognitive,
and intellectual capacities. They
were also hoping to explain issues
on the uniqueness of language and
thought used by humans.
Other scientist were interested in
training apes to develop teaching
techniques to use with mentally
retarded children.
Past Experiments Of Teaching
Chimpanzees Language!
Allen and Beatrice Gardner began teaching sign language to an infant
chimpanzee named Washoe in 1966. Other apes were eventually taught sign
language and they used it to communicated to friends, strangers, each other,
themselves, dogs, cats, and even trees. A chimp named Loulis even learned
sign language indirectly.
David Premack used plastic tokens to train a chimp named Sarah. The
tokens represented words, and varied in shape, size, texture, and color. He
used a stranger, new trainer, to test whether she truly understood language
and they found she could still give the correct answer to questions asked.
Duane Rumbaugh used another language system, an electronic keyboard,
with a chimp named Lana. By learning symbols for specific words, Lana
learned to communicated. She began initiating using the PERIOD key as a
marker to begin a new sentence. She also began using NO as a protest
when someone else received something she wanted (Coke).
Herbert S. Terrance was skeptical of the success of the chimps listed above,
so he started and experiment with a chimp named Nim. He was raised like a
human child and only received approval as a reward for signing. Although
Nim learned many words, Terrace concluded that Nim could not combine
words to create new meaning on his own.
What Is Special About
Kanzi is Bonobo, also called the pygmy chimpanzee. Bonobos have a number of
other traits which suggest it is a close cousin of ours genetically. They are
more humanlike than common chimps in many ways, including being more
vocal, communicative, having humanlike expressions on their faces, and they
are less aggressive and friendly towards humans. Their bodies are slightly
smaller, more graceful in build, have longer legs, and have a smaller skull
than normal chimps.
Kanzi, an unusually intelligent Bonobo chimp recently trained at Georgia State
University, is remarkable in that he learned to use around 200 symbols on a
portable electronic symbol board, a computer with buttons in the shape of
absolute arbitrary symbols, rather than manual signs. More interestingly,
Kanzi learned how to use this board while watching his foster mother, Matata,
being taught by traditional reinforcement methods. So Kanzi did learn how to
use arbitrary symbols without being taught, although he did observe direct
reinforcement of each symbol during the process and the symbols were
taught one at the time. No ape had ever been able to determine that a
specific spoken word corresponded to a picture or printed symbol without
being directly taught. Kanzi’s achievements are not limited to language, but
included tool use and tool manufacturing as well.
Sue Savage – Kanzi’s
Sue Savage was encouraged to conduct
experiments by the strong claims that
chimps have language competency
(Washoe and Lana). She began an
investigation with Sherman and Austin
in a different directions than most
scientists (whether or not they have
language). She planned to focus on
words, not sentences with pictures. By
the time Herbert Terrance published his
paper, Sherman and Austin had achieved
a level of language competence above
any other chimp before. In 1975, she
began her work in Georgia with 5
bonobo chimps. She had to first gain
their trust and began by showing interest
in their behaviors. Sue began working
with Matata using a lexigram board,
which was not that successful, but her
baby Kanzi learned quickly and
indirectly the 10 symbols.
The Implications of
One problem is that we have no way of communicating with apes unless
we teach them some language that humans know, we will may never
know their true intelligence unless we doe more studies in the wild.
Another problem is what will be done with the chimps that were taught to
use language. Is it cruel to remove or stop using it? What happens if they
start demanding more rights, like being able to go out in public?
The more that we learn about apes through these studies, the more we
should be thinking about the rights and freedoms of beings. Should they
have the option to be used in experiments? Is it in their best interest to
learn language?
Websites About Kanzi
 http://members.ozemail.com.au/~ilanit/koko.htm
 http://www.gsu.edu/~wwwlrc/biographies/kanzi.html
 http://pubpages.unh.edu/~jel/512/chimps/SSR.html
 http://ling.uta.edu/2301/notes/08.htm
 http://www.villagevoice.com/vls/173/dery.shtml
 http://www.yourdictionary.com/library/ling002.html
 http://www.facstaff.bucknell.edu/rbeard/chimps.html
Savage-Rumbaugh, S. & Lewin, R. (1994). Kanzi: The ape at the
brink of the human mind. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
NewsHour Online. (1996). Could Bonzo Go To College.
Kanzi. http//www.gsu.edu/~wwwlrc/biographies/kanzi.html
Language in Apes: How much do they know and how much should
we teach them.
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