Teaching language to apes

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Chapter 12 endnote 17, from How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett.
Some context is:

Scientists still debate whether these [language-learning] apes understand the meanings of the symbols or are just mimicking their trainers in order to request rewards.

The book Animal Bodies, Human Minds: Ape, Dolphin, and Parrot Language Skills, by the psychologists William Hillix and Duane Rumbaugh, tells of famous language-learning chimpanzees including Washoe, the first chimpanzee to learn sign language, and Ai and Nim “Chimpsky” (a humorous take on Noam Chomsky, the famous linguist), as well as Koko the signing gorilla, Alex the parrot with language,[1] and other assorted dolphins, orangutans, bonobos, sea lions and dogs.[2][3] The current record-holder for vocabulary is a Border Collie named Chaser who recognizes just over 1000 words.

Not all accounts of this research are quite so optimistic, however. The psychologist who trained Nim Chimpsky, Herbert Terrace, ultimately concluded that Nim never truly acquired language and was just mimicking his teachers’ signs as requests for rewards. Herb’s up-close and personal account of Nim Chimpsky’s life, Nim, A Chimpanzee Who Learned Sign Language, is a gripping tale of the research that led to this conclusion.


Notes on the Notes

  1. Pepperberg, Irene M., and Irene M. Pepperberg. 2009. The Alex Studies: Cognitive and Communicative Abilities of Grey Parrots. Harvard University Press.
  2. See also Savage-Rumbaugh, E. Sue, and Roger Lewin. 1994. Kanzi: The Ape at the Brink of the Human Mind. Wiley.
  3. See also Savage-Rumbaugh, E. Sue, Stuart Shanker, and Talbot J. Taylor. 1998. Apes, Language, and the Human Mind. Oxford University Press.