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Language and Cognition

Language and Nonhuman Primates

Theories of Language Acquisition

The Structure of Cognition

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.

The Case of Washoe the Chimpanzee

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.

Skepticism about Ape Language

Critics of the idea that apes can learn and use language have maintained several arguments:

  • Apes, unlike people, can be trained to learn only a limited number of words and only with difficulty.
  • Apes use signs or computers to get a reward, in the same way that other animals can be taught tricks. But learning tricks is not equivalent to learning language.
  • Apes don’t use syntax. For example, they don’t recognize the difference between Me eat apple and Apple eat me.
  • Trainers may be reading meanings into signs apes make and unintentionally providing cues that help them to respond correctly to questions.

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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