Top 10 Animals That Have Learned to Use Language

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.

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