As humans, we tend to think that we have the monopoly on this whole communication things. We’re really good at it – at least, we think we are. We certainly do it a lot. But do other species also have the capacity to use language? In the wild, animals certainly communicate with each other, like vervet monkeys who have different calls for warnings about snakes, eagles, baboons and lions. The different calls mean the monkeys can respond appropriately to attack – taking cover from an eagle attack, finding higher ground for a snake attack. But is it language? Do animals have semantics, grammar, subtle nuances? Linguists tried to answer that question throughout the twentieth century, and came up with some interesting experiments. Find out who learned human language in our Top 10 Animals That Have Learned to Use Language.
10. Koko (Gorilla)
One of the most famous surviving primates , Koko was born in 1971 and was found malnourished in San Francisco Zoo by Francine Patterson, a linguist. Dr Patterson persuaded the zoo to let her use Koko for experiments into primate language acquisition, and now claims that Koko can use over 1000 signs and understand 2000 human words. A British journalist was granted access to Koko in 2011 and reported that she understood the sign for “baby” and pulled a doll out of a pile of toys when showed a picture of a baby. Dr Patterson also says that Koko can create new words spontaneously – like combining the signs for “finger” and “bracelet” to mean “ring”. She has mastered communicating with her trainer, but the lack of grammar makes it uncertain whether Koko can produce actual language.
9. Chantek (Orangutan)
Chantek is a male orangutan, who has been trained by anthropologist Lyn Miles to use several hundred signs. Currently living near Zoo Atlanta he can understand spoken English and American Sign Language (ASL). Like Koko, he’s been reported to use his own compound words – combining “eye” and “drink” signs to mean contact lens solution. He apparently uses adjectives and names, even if all carers are referred to as “Lyn” (but never strangers). However, his shyness means he doesn’t perform on cue in front of strangers, so it’s hard to verify all the claims made about his prowess.
8. Nim Chimpsky (Chimpanzee)
Named after eminent linguist and psychologist Noam Chomsky, this chimp had a sad life, being raised as a human child within a family setting but being rejected and eventually being sent to a medical research facility. He moved into a Manhattan house as a newborn, under the care of Stephanie LaFarge. She reared him alongside her other children, even breastfeeding him. And during the day, he would learn ASL with the researchers at Columbia University, acquiring 125 signs. But he started getting aggressive and would bite the children at home. In 1977 he attacked a researcher and the decision was taken to finish the experiment.
Nim was sent to a primate facility at the University of Oklahoma, where he was befriended by a research assistant named Bob Ingersoll, who used signs to communicate with him. They also occasionally shared a spliff, a habit of Nim’s from New York, and Nim would sign “stone smoke time now” to ask for it. The chimp was moved again, to a medical research facility but Ingersoll later helped to rescue him and he lived in a chimp sanctuary until his death in 2000.
7. Matata (Bonobo)
Another primate studied by researchers, in this case Duane M. Rumbaugh and E. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh. Matata was trained to use a keyboard with lexigrams but never really grasped the concept. But she earns her place in animal-language history because of something else that happened in the sessions at the Language Research Center of Georgia State University. As a dominant female, Matata had stolen and adopted a son – Kanzi – from other bonobos and it was Kanzi that would provide the breakthrough. But more on him later…
6. Sherman and Austin (Chimpanzees)
Sherman and Austin were also graduates of the Language Research Center, studied by Rumbaugh and Savage-Rumbaugh. They were remarkable in that they could understand what was known as representational symbol learning – they could be shown a picture of a ball and go and fetch a ball from the other room. The interesting thing was that, unlike other apes, they could make a connection with a symbol and something they couldn’t see. They also planned together and co-operated, so acted more like humans than many other apes that had been observed. They did not understand spoken English, but communicated using the lexigram keyboard, with 97% accuracy. Austin died in 1998, but the other apes he lived with still remember him when seeing videos of him.
5. Panbanisha (Bonobo)
Panbanisha was the daughter of Matata and another Language Research Center ape. She was raised with a common chimpanzee, named Panzee, and the two of them were taught to recognize both spoken language and symbols. Panbanisha showed much more comprehension than Panzee, who was removed from the study after 5 years.
Panbanisha died in 2012 in a primate sanctuary and her eulogy from Duane Rumbaugh said “Her presence and competencies declared that she was someone close to our kind” and described her as “someone special”. She certainly had an unusual linguistic ability and her understanding of spoken language, rather than just symbols set her apart from the other primates studied at the center.
4. Sarah (Chimpanzee)
Born in 1962, Sarah was one of the first chimps to show some skill at using grammar. Under the supervision of David and Ann James Premack, she used a special board with plastic tokens to put together sentences including strings like “if (this happens) then (this will happen) else (this will happen)”. Other chimpanzees the Premacks worked with failed to learn even a single word, but Sarah was proficient at long sentences and using reasoning in her language. The Premacks decided to move on from chimps in 1987 and Sarah now lives in a chimpanzee sanctuary.
3. Phoenix and Akeakamai (Dolphins)
Not all language experiments have been on primates. Dolphins have long been reputed to be more intelligent than humans, so it’s perhaps inevitable that they have been a subject of experiments. Louis Herman was a pioneer of this work, at the Kewalo Basin Marine Mammal Laboratory and Phoenix and Akeakamai were two of his study subjects. The experiment was said to be relatively successful, but unlike the primate studies it only focused on language comprehension, not production.
The dolphins were given sentences to respond to that they had never heard before and seemed to comprehend not only the nouns but the sentence structure, for example the difference between “Frisbee hoop in” and “Hoop frisbee in”. Akeakamai in particular also showed some spontaneous responses, using her “yes” and “no” paddles.
Sadly, both dolphins died at the age of 27, both from cancer and within months of each other (a dolphin typically lives for at least 35 years). When their tankmate Hiapo also died early, there were calls for the center to close and it did in 2005, although sister organization The Dolphin Institute implies that the closure was planned as part of the “State of Hawaii’s waterfront redevelopment plan”.
2. Alex (Parrot)
Another example of a non-primate who learned to communicate, Alex was an African Gray Parrot, who was trained by Irene Pepperberg. Parrots are known for their ability to mimic humans, but Pepperberg believed that they could also talk in a more structured way. She said that he couldn’t use language as such but a “two-way communications code” including a vocabulary of 150 words, the numbers 1-7 and the names of 50 objects. He also had some mathematical ability and could add two numbers together.
Alex, whose name derived from the phrase Avian Language EXperiment, was found dead in September 2007 of no apparent cause. His last words to Pepperberg the night before had been “You be good. I love you. See you tomorrow.”
1. Kanzi (Bonobo)
And so back to Matata’s adopted son, Kanzi. And his story is remarkable. A example to working moms everywhere. Matata undertook her lessons with Kanzi clambering over her back. As the researchers struggled to teach Matata 10 lexigrams, Kanzi played nearby. One day, in Matata’s absence Kanzi just started spontaneously using the lexigrams that his mother was failing to learn. He quickly mastered the 10 words, then around 200 more and can point to the correct lexigram in response to a spoken word.
What is amazing about Kanzi is that he was never taught to use the lexigrams and in fact, had no language training at all. He simply acquired the skills in the same way that a human child acquires language. When tested against a 2-year-old human, Kanzi performed well and he was later observed lighting matches and toasting marshmallows after asking for both marshmallows and fire when out in the woods. He also acquired ASL after watching videos of Koko the gorilla.
Though the findings of Rumbaugh and Savage-Rumbaugh were met with some cynicism from the linguistic community, it has given others hope that apes – like humans – can acquire and use real language when given the opportunity.