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Talking to the Animals

Patrick Phillips asks: Is It Incredible?

“A dog cannot relate its autobiography; however eloquently he may bark, he cannot tell you that his parents were honest though poor.”
Bertrand Russell
Human Knowledge: Its Scope And Limits

“A dog believes his master is at the door. But can he also believe that his master will come the day after tomorrow?…How am I supposed to answer this?”
Ludwig Wittgenstein
Philosophical Investigations

Can we talk with the animals? I am assuming in this article that ‘talking to the animals’ would require, at least, that the animals in question possessed a language capacity, however basic. Otherwise any conversation one undertook would be one-sided.

In any search for non-human conversational partners, perhaps the most likely choice would be the apes. Apes share a common ancestry with humans. Indeed, homo sapiens and pan paniscus (Bonobo Chimp) share ninety-nine percent of the same genetic blueprint. Several ‘ape language’ studies undertaken in the 1970s seemed, at least at first, to be highly encouraging. There are major differences between the vocal tracts of humans and chimpanzees. To get around the limitations these impose, a researcher called Herbert Terrace developed a way of training apes in a derivative form of A.S.L. (American Sign Language) under a reward-based system. After some encouragement, the ape in question (a chimpanzee known as Nim) seemed able and willing to mimic the signs demonstrated by his trainers. But did Nim’s sign productions constitute language? Many commentators, including Herbert Terrace himself, said not.

Despite his initial optimism for ‘Project Nim’, Terrace subsequently decided that the signs Nim produced were not ‘language’ (‘How Nim Chimpsky Changed My Mind’ Psychology Today 1979). Terrace concluded that what his traiing programme brought about in the apes was not language competence, as he had hoped, but rather various forms of ‘habituated behaviour’. In an attempt to satisfy his trainers’ requirement for a meaningful response, Nim would often throw up a ‘word salad’ of signing. This jumble of random and unconnected signs was often anthropomorphized as language by the overseers of the project who, quite innocently, wanted Nim to succeed.

In his book Aping Language (1992) Joel Wallman, a linguist and philosopher, has pointed out the pitfalls of trying to teach any form of language to an ape exclusively by a training process. The drawback is that it can delude the trainers. What the trainer often perceives as a meaningful response from the chimp (in American Sign Language, for example) is not strictly language at all. With a reward system in operation, the exchanges between instructor and chimp are more like those between human and dog where the dog is asked to ‘roll over’ or ‘play dead’ for a reward. The chimp may be reacting to a visual cue in the same way a dog reacts to a verbal one. Just as it would be incorrect to say that the dog’s movements showed that it understood the English sentences ‘roll over’ or ‘play dead’, so would it be to deduce from the chimp’s movements that it understood and responded appropriately to what was ‘signed’. What also casts doubt on the chimp’s level of understanding is that these responses often make no sense because they are inappropriate to the context in which they feature. An example is the impressive but nevertheless random and non-specific vocabulary of a parrot. Instead of conversation, what was going on was a pattern of behaviour based around stimulus (the trainer’s sign) the chimp’s reaction, and its reward (fruit or some other tit-bit).

However, it is important to note that Terrace’s negative conclusions concerned only one type of language research, that of training apes (mostly chimpanzees) in one particular kind of sign language under a reward-based system. Terrace’s admission that his approach to ape language research was a cul-de-sac was a less sweeping claim than that often attributed to him. That is, that all current and future ape language studies regardless of the methodology, would necessarily yield the same disappointing results. This stronger, more pessimistic claim is pervasive amongst contemporary linguists and philosophers. Perhaps philosophers misconstrue the particular claim as a universal one less often than linguists, who seem to have a guiding light in their rejection of ape language projects in the form of Noam Chomsky.

In the tradition of Descartes, Chomsky’s basic premise is that, “Humans are fundamentally different from everything else in the physical world.” According to him, we have language and other earthbound creatures do not. Chomsky agrees that if any of our fellow creatures did possess a language capacity one would expect it to be our genetic cousins the apes. But Chomsky explicitly denies the possibility that apes have, or might develop, a language capacity. As he puts it, “…All normal humans acquire language, whereas acquisition of even its barest rudiments is quite beyond the capacities of an otherwise intelligent ape.” Chomsky’s position hinges on the view that the language capacity common to all human beings is an innate one. To ‘have’ language is to possess an inborn knowledge, in the form of a universal grammar housed within a particular part of the (human) brain. Indirect evidence of this innate capacity for language comes from the fact that all known languages share certain common patterns or rules within their grammars. Chomsky claims that this core of rules or universal grammar is the product of an unidentified locale of the human brain which he refers to as the Language Organ.

Many linguists, philosophers and ape language researchers soundly argue that language capacity is innate in some respect. As the leading contemporary ape language researcher, Sue Savage-Rambaugh, has pointed out “One would hardly want to attribute even partial linguistic competence to oysters for example, regardless of their rearing” (Savage-Rambaugh Kanzi: The Ape At The Brink Of The Human Mind 1994). However, Chomsky and his followers deny any continuity between the language capacities of chimpanzees and humans despite the chimps’ close evolutionary relationship to Homo Sapiens. When Noam Chomsky and Joel Wallman use the term ‘innate’ they understand it as something ‘innate and unique’ to human beings.

Chomsky’s defence of this view is strikingly indirect. He argues along evolutionary lines that if apes had an innate language ability it would have manifested itself by now. As no language capacity has yet shown itself, he concludes that apes don’t have any (Discover March 1991). Surprisingly, this argument is made without reference to any field studies on natural communication among primates. Nevertheless the view is widespread and influential. In Aping Language Joel Wallman takes up Chomsky’s ‘syntax as criterion’ position. He argues that the ape cannot possess language skills because it does not possess a syntax. Wallman draws the boundary early in Aping Language when he sets out the defining criteria of a language. He writes: “It is beyond all dispute that all natural languages are predicated on rule systems grammars… involving elements grouped into nested categories of increasing abstraction.” One example among many is Wallman’s concept of reference: “Reference, the use of the word to indicate the focus of one’s attention, is neither present congenitally nor evident within the first year, but it appears soon after in all (human) children with an inevitability suggesting that it appears not to be learned: it is, indeed, hard to imagine how it could be learned. Reference seems to be part of the endowment of the species. Evidence for its natural occurrence elsewhere, on the other hand, is quite limited” (Aping Language p.77). Thus far, Wallman follows the standard Chomskian line. But what of apes? Are they to be accommodated under the banner of the endowment of the species? The answer is, of course, no. Wallman explicitly states that “language is a unique function of human biology.” Moreover, other primates do not “evince language-like principles… Ours, dispensing with qualifications, is cortical, while theirs is limbic: our symbols are learned, their calls are inborn; our language is referenial, their communication affective.” Is Wallman correct to deny the very possibility of language competence to apes? To answer this question, let us turn to recent ape language studies undertaken by Sue Savage-Rambaugh with Kanzi the bonobo chimpanzee, at the Yerkes Regional Primate Centre in Atlanta, U.S.A.

In 1981 Kanzi’s mother Matata, a wild pygmy chimpanzee (Pan Paniscus), began instruction under Sue Savage-Rambaugh in the use of the Yerkish language on a computer keyboard. Named after the founder of the Yerkes Regional Primate Centre, this language is a vocabulary of abstract symbols called lexigrams. Matata’s initial instruction was informal. Savage-Rambaugh and her colleagues merely demonstrated for her the use of the lexigram keyboard while speaking in English to each other and to Matata. When this approach proved ineffective, a system of pairing lexigrams with rewards was established. But Matata failed to adopt the use of lexigrams as symbols.

Amazingly, the benefit of the work undertaken with Matata was borne out not with Matata herself but with Kanzi, her male offspring. Kanzi was born at Yerkes in October of 1980. Although Kanzi was with his mother for the first two years of her language instruction (from the ages of six months to two and a half years) no attempt was made to impart the Yerkish language system to Kanzi. Yet he was allowed into the laboratory, because he could not be separated from his mother. This allowed Kanzi the opportunity to observe his mother’s instruction.

When Kanzi was two and a half years old, the researchers decided to remove Matata from the programme temporarily for breeding purposes. To minimise a potentially traumatic separation, the researchers maintained Kanzi’s daily routine. That is, he would still spend the same amount of time in the language laboratory even though Matata was no longer undergoing instruction. Kanzi, however, began to use the computer’s lexigram keyboard of his own accord. On the first day Savage- Rambaugh noted that Kanzi utilized the keyboard on no less than 120 occasions (Savage-Rambaugh & Lewin Kanzi: The Ape At The Brink Of The Human Mind 1994. p.135). One of the first things he did that morning in the laboratory was to press the lexigram for ‘apple’ and then the lexigram for ‘chase’. Kanzi immediately picked up an apple, looked directly at Savage-Rambaugh and then ran away grinning and playful. It would be easy to be sceptical concerning this one example of Kanzi’s ability. However, this event just marked the tip of the iceberg of Kanzi’s potential. Savage-Rambaugh and her colleagues soon realized that Kanzi had acquired a remarkable amount of linguistic knowledge merely by association. On several occasions on that first day, Kanzi selected specific food keys on the computer and, when taken to the refrigerator, picked out those foods he had indicated on the keyboard. That is, Kanzi was using specific lexigrams to request and name items and to announce his intentions in the particular instance.

From this time onward Kanzi began using the lexigram keyboard in a purposeful way, seeking particular lexigrams. For example, if he was presented with an array of objects including one whose corresponding lexigram he had pressed, he would take only the one he had ‘requested’ indicating that he was able to use the symbols to refer to specific entities. Also Kanzi was able to ‘name’ objects he was shown by pressing their lexigram. Furthermore, he began to produce lexigram combinations as soon as he was using the keyboard regularly – not only to respond to requests made of him (naming objects etc) but to make requests of his care givers, without prompting. Within four months Kanzi’s vocabulary on the lexigram keyboard rose from the original eight symbols to more than twenty.

After seventeen months, Kanzi had acquired a vocabulary of about fifty symbols. During this initial period Kanzi also evinced an ability for multi-word utterances. Of course Kanzi is not the first ape to be credited with such an ability. Herbert Terraces’s chimpanzee Nim was said to be able to do the same. Yet Kanzi’s and Nim’s cases are different in subtle but important respects. Nim’s multi-word utterances consisted of responses to a teacher’s requests or imitations of a teacher’s utterances. Also, with Nim, sign responses to such questions as “Who Nim hug?” – while Nim was in the process of hugging someone – did not produce new information (that is, information that is not already selfevident in the situation).

By contrast, Kanzi’s multi-word utterances were spontaneous. They weren’t responses to teachers’ requests nor were they imitations of teachers’ utterances. Kanzi formed spontaneous utterances such as “Matata grouproom tickle” to ask that his mother be permitted to join in a game of tickle in the group room. Many of Kanzi’s utterances had this character of novelty and functioned to suggest completely new actions and alternatives to the usual way of doing things. Another contrast occurred in the way Kanzi added more elements to his utterances so that the information content increased. Savage-Rambaugh writes: “Of Kanzi’s three-word utterances, the most interesting – and significant – were those in which he indicated someone other than himself as the agent or recipient of an action. Most of his three-item combinations involved the initiation of play, such as grab, chase and tickle. Some of these games involved Kanzi directly, but others were intended for his teachers. For instance, Kanzi might indicate “grab chase” at the keyboard, and then take one person’s hand and push it toward a second person: the chaser and the pursued. Statements of this sort were Kanzi’s inventions, as none of us suggested we play with each other leaving Kanzi as spectator.” Savage-Rambaugh also pointed out that compared with food requests or requests to be tickled, where the chimpanzee is always the recipient of the action, statements that initiate action between two other individuals are highly complex.

Kanzi was also suspected of being able to understand spoken sentences. Savage-Rambaugh was alerted to this when the researchers were talking about lights; Kanzi would run to the light switch and flip it on and off.

To test this ability Kanzi was shown an array of three photographs and lexigrams, after which a word was spoken to indicate which one he was to give the experimenter. He was neither trained for this test nor was he offered rewards for correct answers. Kanzi was involved in three testing sessions in which the requests alternated between spoken English and lexigrams. Savage-Rambaugh reports, “The tests included thirtyfive different items, used in 180 trials in English and 180 with lexigrams. Kanzi scored 95 percent correct on the lexigram trials and almost as well, 93 percent, on the English trials. We were able to determine that Kanzi understood 150 spoken words at the end of the seventeen month period.” This discovery of Kanzi’s ability caused Savage-Rambaugh and her colleges to rethink the issues of language and human uniqueness. As Savage- Rambaugh put it: “If an ape can begin to comprehend spoken English without being so trained, and was able to do more than admit differential motor response on cue, it would appear that the ape possessed speech and language abilities similar to my own.” She went on, “Even if the ape was unable to speak, an ability to comprehend language would be the cognitive equivalent of having acquired language.”

According to Savage-Rambaugh, Kanzi’s successes were due to the approach that she employed in his learning on a philosophical level. The switch from structured training to laissez-faire learning meant that Kanzi himself was involved in which words he acquired and what it was that those words meant. Kanzi’s ability to comprehend spoken English, for example, may be partly due to his ‘humanlike’ passage into language, for comprehension aided the emergence of the productive skills in Kanzi, as it does in human children. Bearing this in mind, it is tempting to wonder whether the earlier experimenters’ assumptions about the limited abilities of their subjects eventually restricted the progress of Nim and the other early ‘ape language’ subjects.

What is revolutionary about the work undertaken with Kanzi is that it avoids so many of the standard objections that were levelled against earlier projects. First, it avoids the dangers of the ‘training process’ approach. That is, Kanzi’s ability is not the result of habituated behaviour founded upon a reward or punitive-based training process. Nor is Kanzi’s ability confined to a reaction to a set of cues by his ‘trainers’. Using his computer keyboard, Kanzi also demonstrates understanding and comprehension of English sentences and of imperatives, questions and references. Very few of these abilities are tied to the mere satisfaction of wants. Kanzi will often initiate a conversation for no reason other than he wishes to: he doesn’t stand to elicit some food or some other reward. Moreover, he demonstrates the ability to recognize that a symbol ‘stands for’ something else through his references to a third person. This level of conceptual complexity was beyond the ability of Kanzi’s predecessors.

Does this mean that Kanzi uses ‘language’? According to neo-Chomskians such as Joel Wallman, the answer is no. All the ‘events’ and ‘abilities’ discussed so far are irrelevant to the Chomskian hypothesis. For Wallman the ‘communicative situation’ within which the supposed language-use takes place is of small importance. The one defining criterion for the ascription of language to an ape like Kanzi is the presence (or absence) of syntax in his lexigram utterances. As Wallman reports, “The testing of Kanzi’s sentence comprehension, in summary, demonstrates that he is able to put together the object or objects and the action mentioned in the way that is appropriate given the properties of the objects involved, what he typically does with them, or both.” Does this mean that we can apply the term ‘language’ to these events? According to Wallman’s sting-in-the-tail, “His (Kanzi’s) performance provides no evidence, however, that he was attending to even so simple a syntactic feature as word order” (Wallman 1992, p.104). Syntactic word order is the ultimate adjudicator in matters of language ascription, to the exclusion of all else. Surely, though, this syntactical criterion of language ascription is heavily taxed by Kanzi’s ability to communicate in a wide variety of ways and in a wide variety of situations? The fact that Kanzi exhibits these communicative skills, and moreover that he seems aware of what he is communicating in any instance, renders the Chomskian criteria highly suspect.

The Chomskian understanding of the concept of language is a technical one; but technical terms are legitimate only in explanatory models that do not do violence to the facts and are useful, or at least, edifying in some way. But in this case, Chomsky’s notion of an ‘innate’ ability as a set of syntactical rules nested within a ‘language organ’ is no more than a carpet under which we can sweep the entire messy business of explanation.

So can we say that some animals have language capabilities? Chomsky’s and Wallman’s denial that Kanzi’s abilities in any way indicate language use should force us to reconsider the conceptual tools with which we tackle this difficult problem.

© Patrick Phillips 1997

Further Reading

Chomsky, Noam quoted in ‘Clever Kanzi’, by Fredrick Golden, Discover March 20th 1991
Linden, Eugene Silent Partners: The Legacy of the Ape Language Experiments. Ballantine, New York 1987
Savage-Rambaugh, Susan and Lewin, Roger Kanzi: The Ape at the Brink of the Human Mind. John Wiley & Sons, New York 1994
Terrace, Herbert ‘Why Koko Can’t Talk’, The Sciences 1982
Wallman, Joel Aping Language Cambridge University Press 1992

Patrick Phillips is a Doctoral Candidate at York University, Toronto. He is presently writing a book on Ape Language Research and related topics in the field of animal cognition.

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