When Did We Start Teaching Animals Sign Language?

For nine months in 1931-1932, Luella and Winthrop Kellogg raised a chimpanzee, Gua, as though she were their infant son’s four-months younger sister.

ASL phoneme of the word "WHAT'S UP / WHAT...

ASL phoneme of the word "WHAT'S UP / WHAT'S NEW" (Photo credit: WikipediaFor nine months in 1931-1932, Luella and Winthrop Kellogg raised a chimpanzee, Gua, as though she were their infant son’s four-months younger sister.

After nine months, the chimp’s reading and understanding were ahead of their son’s.

However, at just over a year old, the chimp could not say any words. Their son, who could say some words by now, at sixteen months, started to copy the chimp’s sounds.

The Kellogg’s ended the experiment and Gua was returned to Robert Yerkes’ primate center in Florida (since moved to Atlanta, Georgia).

Robert Yerkes, (1876-1956) was an early primatologist and psychologist who studied the social behavior of gorillas and chimpanzees.

Who Got the Idea of Using Sign Language?

From 1947-1951, Keith and Catherine Hayes also tried to teach a chimpanzee, Vicki, to talk.

She eventually learned to say mama, papa, cup and up.

This led some scientists to think that human language was one of the things that distinguishes us from animals, but others believed chimps simply did not have the facial muscles to form human language adequately.

In 1967, Allen and Beatrix Gardner were the first to teach a non-human primate, in this case, the chimpanzee, Washoe, how to use sign language.

Washoe learned about 350 signs and taught her son and several other chimpanzees about 150 signs. The Gardners communicated with her using ASL only, not spoken words.

In 1972, a graduate student in psychology, Francine Patterson, began teaching a one-year-old gorilla, Koko, signs borrowed from American Sign Language, simultaneously with the spoken word equivalents.

By 1978, the gorilla, Koko, had learned to recognize and produce 350 signs. Eventually, she would be able to recognize more than 1,000 signs and 2,000 words.

Click here to see a 1978 YouTube video of Koko.

Is It Language or Behavioral Training?

While, reportedly, Michael, another gorilla, picked up 600 signs after living with Koko and Kanzi, a bonobo, picked up some sign language after watching videos of Koko, scientists are not all agreed that Koko and her imitators can be considered proficient in language.

They make a distinction between the clear communication between dancing bees and whale songs and the definition of language.

What Does It Take to Make It Language?

Scientists list seven characteristics of human language.

  • Arbitrariness: the word for house has nothing to do with what it represents. It is symbolic
  • Cultural transmission: people teach language to each other
  • Discreteness: words and sounds are separate, and can be combined
  • Displacement: you don’t have to be talking about something you can see to understand the word for it
  • Duality: language includes both the information about how a word is used in a sentence and its meaning
  • Metalinguistics: we can talk about language itself
  • Productivity: words can be combined in an infinite number of ways to extend meaning

Koko could combine words in appropriate ways.

Bee dances communicate information about something that is not within sight.

Bonobos have been known to teach language to others.

However, these are limited instances of learning some of the characteristics of language, not the rich language that humans enjoy routinely from a very early age.

Have you ever seen an animal use sign language?

Did you know that gorillas and chimps have been taught to sign?

What other kinds of communication have you noticed between animals?

To you and sharing the delights of the animal kingdom with your grandchildren.

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Carol Covin, Granny-Guru

Click here to order my book, affectionate, candid advice from mothers to grandmothers and grandmothers to mothers, “Who Gets to Name Grandma? The Wisdom of Mothers and Grandmothers”

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