Some researchers have tried to teach apes to use language. Because of the structure of their vocal organs, apes can’t say words, but they can communicate using signs or computers. Using these means, apes can make requests, respond to questions, and follow instructions.
Researchers at Central Washington University taught a chimpanzee named Washoe to use American Sign Language (ASL) to communicate. She could sign not only single words but also meaningful combinations of words. She could follow instructions and respond to questions given in ASL. Later, Washoe’s foster child, Loulis, learned signs just by watching Washoe and other chimps that had been trained to use language. Some research even suggested that language-trained chimps may use signs spontaneously to communicate with each other or to talk to themselves, although this behavior is not thoroughly documented.
Critics of the idea that apes can learn and use language have maintained several arguments:
Clearly, communication in nonhuman animals differs drastically from language in humans. The spontaneity, uniqueness, and reflective content of human language remains unmatched.
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