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The Apes that Can!

The question as to whether humans are the only ones on this planet who have the ability to comprehend and use language has been of great argument since the beginning of psychology. At the moment we follow the progression of Washoe (RIP) and her ‘learning’ of American Sign Language and with the arrival of the new 2008 specification we will see Kanzi’s abilities using a lexicon (click for image). Is it possible to teach a chimp to use a form of language to communicate? What are the boundaries of language? How do we interpret language?

Kanzi understands thousands of words and he uses sentences, talks on the phone, and likes to gossip. In short, he uses language in many of the same ways humans do. But, that’s not supposed to be possible. Since the 1950s, linguists including Noam Chomsky have argued that language is unique to humans and requires an innate understanding of grammar.

Recent research has suggested that chimps may have a ‘language ready brain‘. In the new study, the researchers non-invasively scanned the brains of three chimpanzees as they gestured and called to a person in request for food that was out of their reach. Those chimps showed activation in the brain region corresponding to Broca’s area. Scientists have identified Broca’s area, located in part of the human brain known as the inferior frontal gyrus, as one of several critical regions that light up with activity when people plan to say something and when they actually talk or sign.

This research suggests therefore that chimps could have a brain that is hard-wired to understand and process language. However, researchers at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Emory University, have identified a language feature unique to the human brain that is shedding light on how human language evolved (more about this new research here).

So, the argument is still going on and research like that conducted by Gardner and Gardner, and Savage-Rumbaugh is compelling as to the amazing abilities of these animals.

Here in a TED video from 2004 Sue Savage-Rumbaugh asks whether uniquely human traits, and other animals’ behaviours, are hard-wired by species. Then she rolls a video that makes you think: maybe not. The bonobo apes she works with understand spoken English. One follows her instructions to take a cigarette lighter from her pocket and use it to start a fire.

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In the video bonobos are shown making tools, drawing symbols to communicate, and playing Pac-Man; all tasks learned just by watching. Maybe it’s not always biology that causes a species to act as it does, she suggests. Maybe it’s cultural exposure to how things are done.

Have these animals learned a language? Possibly. Even if you listen to the critics of the research what we have seen in these videos and the research surrounding language acquisition in animals is surely some evidence of abilities that are far superior to what would be expected.

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