Often when I tell people about apes they are very interested in whether or not apes can learn language. Scientists are very interested in this too.
First, non-human apes do not talk like we do because their vocal cords are different so they can only make a different set of sounds. Right now we cannot understand their sounds but some scientists think we might be able to learn to do so in the future,
Second, some scientists distinguish between “communication” and “language.” Saying that language is uniquely human and that apes do not understand different types of sentences (like questions) and do not think about how to express themselves. I think apes have language but it is different than human language and we just don’t understand yet how to appreciate their different methods of communication.
But that doesn’t mean that apes cannot learn to understand language and communicate to humans in other ways. The problem is for apes to develop “human language” they need to be taught by humans and sometimes it is hard to determine whether they are doing something just to get a reward or because they truly understand. Some scientists believe that animals cannot learn 'real' language, and that most of animal communication skills are ''innate." This means that animals would be able to communicate with other animals who are like themselves even if no others of their species ever showed them how to do so. These scientists wish to limit the definition of language to the exact languages that humans use, which they feel is unique.
These scientists used to argue that apes cannot learn language. They said that apes were just imitating or following commands to get what they wanted. They said that apes are like dogs, who can understand words but don't really understand sentences or think about language. Because apes don't talk like us they could not speak to defend themselves
Some apes have been taught to use sign language. Probably, the most famous example of an ape who was taught to sign is Koko the gorilla who has learned many signs and even combines signs together to make words that she didn’'t know. For example, she saw a zebra and used the signs for "white" and "tiger". We know that zebras are not white tigers and Koko almost certainly knows that zebras are not white tigers but that was the best way she had to describe a zebra.
Unfortunately, lots of sign language experiments were not very successful. This can be for a lot of reasons. Chimpanzees, orangutans, bonobos, and gorillas, hands are all a little different from humans so sometimes it is hard for them to directly imitate signs invented for humans to do. More importantly though how can you explain to an ape WHY they would want to learn sign language? Sometimes they don't want to because they would rather play and have fun. A very famous chimpanzee, named Nim Chimpsky, learned some signs very well but lots of people think he failed to acquire language. Nim spent lots of hours in a classroom being taught like people are taught but that probably is the wrong way to teach a chimpanzee anything.
Another way apes use language is through keyboards with symbols called lexigrams. Lexigrams are small abstract pictures that represent one word each.
Dr. Duane Rumbaugh was the first scientist in the field of ape language to try to use his knowledge and research results to help children who are communicatively challenged by providing them with a keyboard. He gave these children keyboards and experimented with many different ways to help them learn the symbols on the keyboards.
The most famous language experiments with keyboards are done by Dr. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh with bonobos, especially Kanzi, Panbanisha, and Nyota.
Kanzi learned how to use lexigrams as a baby when they were trying to teach his Mother Matata. Dr. Savage-Rumbaugh immediately figured out that the best way for apes to learn language is to expose them to language as baby just like humans learn language. She also made sure there were lots of lexigrams for things Kanzi is interested in so that he wanted to learn them. Another really smart thing she did was, instead of teaching Kanzi in a laboratory she and Kanzi would travel through a forest. That way, he learned the lexigrams in a natural environment doing the sorts of things that bonobos love to do. Exploring and playing are very important in bonobo society. Panbanisha is Kanzi’s sister and she has learned as much as Kanzi. Nyota is Panabanisha’s son and he is learning now. And because they have been raised with English around them being spoken they can understand spoken English extremely well. They too put lexigrmas together for words that don’t have lexigrams (Panbanisha called pizza “cheese bread” and when Nyota wanted fresh not frozen blueberries, he pointed to lexigrams for “blueberries, no, ice”) You can visit the website for the Great Ape Trust of Iowa to learn more about their amazing abilities and see videos.
When Dr. Duane Rumbaugh worked with children he found the very best way was the same way that worked with Kanzi. So humans and other apes may learn language in a very similar manner.
What happens though over and over is that scientists will say “Kanzi must do something to prove he has language”. Then after he does that, they say “it’s not language until he does this”. So if they keep changing the rules then it will never be seen as “language”. But what is language? Language let’s us communicate our ideas and our feelings and lets us express what we want and don’t want. Kanzi and Panbanisha and other apes are able to use the lexigrams humans have invented to express themselves very well.
Dr. Jane Goodall thinks that language has allowed humans to develop in ways other apes haven’t., but that doesn’t make us smarter than apes or make us much different. She has proven that chimpanzees share the same feelings and concerns as humans do. Many scientists now know that we need to listen more closely to how apes communicate with each other before we can figure out how best for humans and non-human apes to communicate. Watching a gorilla or orangutan or bonobo or chimpanzee in a laboratory is fine; but if we put one of those scientists who thinks apes can’t develop language in the jungle with a troop of gorillas he/she would probably seem pretty inferior as a member of the troop and wouldn’t understand the ideas the gorillas share with each other.
Another problem is that scientists like things to be proven without “emotion” so that we are sure that they are facts. But would anyone think it would be a good and successful idea to teach a human baby “language” without giving the baby love and affection? The most successful ape language experiments with all species occur when there is a strong bond between the human and the non-human ape. However, that means you can’t always repeat the success in another situation or with a different ape. Does that mean it isn’t true just because it can’t be done over and over? Some scientists think so.
Apes do communicate. If we want to continue to learn from them and learn about ourselves we need to put them in an environment where they feel comfortable and safe and first we must make sure we teach them WHY they would like to learn our language. And that can only happen if they know we respect their own culture and ways of communicating. That is why Dr. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh’s work is so important. And if we don’t learn to respect our fellow great apes then soon we’ll be the only surviving great ape and we too may go extinct.