Friday, December 15

Chatting With Champs

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The apes who talk with their hands.

Natural this have long known that the aides, our nearest relatives in the animal kingdom communicate with one another through gestures, sounds and facial expressions.  But it was long believed that only human beings could use words and sentences.  In the 1960s however, determined researchers set themselves the task of teaching chimpanzees and other apes to talk in English.

Poor speakers

At first that the scientist tried to make the animals speak.  But no chimp ever managed to acquire a vocabulary of more than four words, and those were spoken with great difficulty as their vocal tracks are not well adapted for producing the highly nuanced sounds of human speech.

The the breakthrough came when Trixie and Alan Gardner, a husband and wife team of scientists at the University of Nevada, decided to try American sign language (A S. L.), a system of gestures used by the death.  After four years of dedicated effort, they had taught their first chimpanzee, Washoe , to use 132 ASL signs correctly to communicate her wants and needs.

Washoe clearly understood words, asked in sign language to fetch a Apple, she would bring that fruit rather than say a banana.  But her linguistic abilities went much further.  She would not only produce simple combinations like give Apple or please hurry to get what she wanted from her keepers, but also talked to herself in sign language when she thought no one was watching.  She was often observed making the sign for quiet or her own benefit alone as she crept stealthily across the yard towards an area that she had been for bid in to enter.  Washoe even learned to sway our, applying the word for dirty to anything or anyone she disliked.

The Gardners went on to assemble a small community of baby chimps that were constantly in the presence of adults who used sign language among themselves as well as with the animals.  The researchers reported that the chimps grew accustomed to talking to one another in sign language.  They even started inventing their own words by combining signs of a new, for instance water bird for us long.

Word order

Apart from sign language, apes have been taught by other scientists to communicate using plastic tokens on a board, having learned that each token represented an object, action, color or concept.  Some researchers have noticed that the apes prefer to use symbols in a particular order, and see this as evidence of a primitive grammar.  For example they roll request something to drink I signing more drink rather than drink more.  Yet other scientists still doubt whether the apes are using language in a truly human sense.  They point out that the apes rarely put together more than two words in a sentence, and they spend most of their time exactly mimicking the series of signs made by their teachers.  But the Gardners at least are in no doubt that their chimps really can’t talk with their hand’s.


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