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Exploring the Debate on Ape Language Learning Capabilities

Jan 11, 2023 | 0 comments

Jan 11, 2023 | Essays | 0 comments


The essay will analyze two opposing views and arguments on whether apes can learn language by Savage-Rumbaugh and Joel Wallman. Primate specialist and a psychologist Savage-Rumbaugh argued that for the past five decades, several attempts made by human beings to teach apes and chimpanzees’ symbol systems that are similar to the language of human beings have demonstrated an ability of creating new patterns of symbols. On the other hand, Joel Wallman who is a linguist is of a contrary opinion. He argues that many attempts to teach chimpanzees and apes symbolic patterns and sign language have shown that apes are animals which are intelligent. However, these attempts up to now have not demonstrated that apes have innate language capacity. This essay will argue in support of Savage- Rumbaugh’s arguments that apes can learn language.

According to Endicott & Welsch (2012), it is very difficult to get a universal definition of language that satisfies everyone, and therefore nobody should make assertions that animals have no language.  According to Wallman (1992), language consists of different aspects such as symbols usage, grammar, representation ability of the situation of the real world, and the articulation ability of something new. On the other hand, Rumbaugh (1977) defined language as an open communication system that is infinite. The essay will define language as “a behavioral system providing for learning of symbols meaning and for their application in exchanging information within the social context. The symbols can be based on any modality such as vision (body movements, geometric figures, writing), sound (whistling, drumming, hearing, speech), and touch (Braille) among others (Kottak, 2010).” The comprehending of language ability is a requisite to competence in productive expressions/use of language

Acquisition of language in apes- the view of Savage- Rumbaugh

The computer literacy. This will facilitate the introduction of the ICT curriculum in the college that is can be comprehended by the Dubbo teaching staff. The acquisition of language by ape according to Savage- Rumbaugh (1986) is highly contingent to early rearing specific aspects. If apes from birth are in an environment that is language-stricture can understand many sentences that they hear in research procedures that are tightly controlled. Savage- Rumbaugh (1986) indicated that stimulus-response-reinforcements, that formal training procedures are based are used in cultivating language competence in apes, are less effective compared to appropriate language/social rearing to the language cultivation, and notably to comprehending ability of the human speech. Apes can apply their language skills in coordinating problem solving with caregivers or between themselves (Savage- Rumbaugh, 1986). The brains of apes are lateralized both in function and structure, though the systems/circuits used for language might not be identical to that of human beings in language use and acquisition (Savage- Rumbaugh, 1986).

Hayes & Nissen (1971) demonstrated that apes and chimpanzees without any significant facility could not speak, and that if they had any language potential, another expression medium would have to be designed to study it. Savage- Rumbaugh’s group succeded in developing a system and key board that is computer monitored which Lana, the chimpanzee became very proficient in learning several sentences of requests effective for getting food, privileges and companionships and viewing slides and movies. Some of Lana’s accomplishments include learning of sizes and colors names (Savage- Rumbaugh, 1977).

Later, Savage- Rumbaugh (1986) chimpanzees Austin and Sherman learn how to use lexigram to use in making requests for specific items. Further significant findings were re gotten from study on a rare form of chimpanzee called bonobos.

Savage- Rumbaugh and her team worked with a bonobo called Matata with similar successful training methods applied on Austin and Sherman. However, Savage- Rumbaing (1986) pointed out that they did not have any success with Matata. However, Kanzi, an adopted Matata’s son which was an infant observed the training session of Matata and learned spontaneously. By two and a half years, Kanzi he could propose games, formulate novel requests and even announce actions intended. By four years, he was able to understand completely and using lexigrams and understood most of the spoken English words of the caregivers to at least 150 words (Savage-Rumbaugh & Lewin, 1994).

Views and arguments of Joel Wallman

Joel Wallman who is a linguist is of the contrary opinion that apes cannot learn language and his arguments are based on some unsuccessful research experiments on apes. Wallman (1992) indicated that for the past five decades there has been an increasing interest in some non-human primates’ linguistic achievements. Many researchers have tried teaching orangutans, bonobos, chimpanzees and gorillas to communicate in symbolic, quasi-linguistic and linguistic fashions.

Washoe was a chimpanzee which psychologists started teaching how to communicate by American Sign Language in 1960’s using “cross-fostering approach” like a deaf human child. Roger Fouts and Allen Gardner worked with Washoe from late 1960s to 2007 when it died (Fouts & Mills, 1997). Fouts & Mills (1997) indicated that by the time it was 5 years, Washoe was able to use 132 signs. This was in a combination of signs that reflects syntactic order, and not just employing each sign one at a time.

Another unsuccessful research project filled with skepticism Wallman highlighted was “project Nim” conducted by Herbert Terrace between 19 and 1977(Terrace, 1979). The researchers also applied cross-fostering approach on Nim and taught him how to apply ASL in communication just like Washoe. By four months, Nim knew the sign of “drink” and by the end of the project Nim had mastered about 125 signs. Terrace focused on combined multiple signs use on Nim whereas Gardners focused on Washoe’s demonstration of individual signs mastery (Terrace, 1979).

According to Wallman (1992) linguists consider grammatical structures to be an essential feature of language. The mere use of multiple signs or signs for objects does not demonstrate that apes employ the signs in accordance with the structure of grammar. The main objective of Nim project by Terrace was to find out whether apes/chimpanzees’ use of the ASL signs demonstrate grammatical structure or rules. Detailed data analysis at the end of the project indicated negative results on project Nim. Preliminary analysis showed that Nim had the ability of forming primitive sentences, but this turned otherwise after careful analysis. Moreover, the increase in vocabulary of Nim did not match the increase in his utterances length. Some of his utterances were highly repetitious and longer (Terrace, 1979).

Critical assessment

The spontenous use of keyboard by Kanzi after watching what his mother, Matata had been trained showed that he had intention of communicating, and is a valid ground to indicate apes can learn language. Further test by Salvage-Rumbaugh & Lewin (1994) on Kanzi indicated that Kanzi comprehended the signs he was using. For instance, his unprompted symbols use to request activities and items that he wanted. Additionally, the ability of apes to learn language has also been demonstrated by evidence of Kanzi understanding spoken English. For instance, tests indicated that he understood 150 spoken English words while he was young, and he would also turn off the lights when a person mentions “lights off.”

Wallman pointed out the negative results in project Nim that apes/chimpanzees are unable to acquire syntactic structure. This is in contrast to claims by Salvage-Rumbaugh that Kanzi was able to use lexigrams which involve structural components. This is further solidified by use of multiple word utterances by Kanzi.

In a bid to show that it was grammatical to use lexigrams by Kanzi, Greenfield & Salvage-Rumbaugh (1990) found affected by mental or physical health disability. However, research evidence indicating that Kanzi used symbols that satisfy five criteria for structure presence in his application of multiple sequence of symbols. The criteria include; independent use of symbols, must combine in a manner permitting expression of  a particular meaning, existence of a rue applying to symbols category, productive rules, and categories related by formal device. Kanzi satisfied all these criteria by using lexigram. This demonstrates there is evidence of rudimentary syntactic structure in Kanzi’s use of multiple symbols, and an indication that apes can learn languages.

Based on the argument by Wallman that linguists consider grammatical structures to be an essential feature of language. Therefore, mere use of multiple signs or signs for objects does not demonstrate that apes  employs the signs in accordance with the structure of grammar does not has grounds based on the definition of “language.” Kottak (2010) defined language as a behavioral system providing for learning of symbols meaning and for their application in exchanging information within the social context. Therefore, based on the definition of the language and the preliminary analysis that showed that Nim was able to utter primitive sentences indicate that apes can learn language.

Another argument by Wallman (1992) is that most of signs by Nim and Washoe were imitative and therefore cannot be credited for grammatical competence by Nim and Washoe also is baseless. Studies have indicated that language learning by a child is through observation, listening and imitation. Therefore, the use of structured pattern of signs by Nim and Washoe through imitation of their teachers in addition to their tendency to interrupt indicates their learning process of language as much as it was not their genuine linguistic ability.

The biggest problem noted by Wallman (1992) is that apes may be doing things to get reward and this shows they are conditioned. However, behaviorists believe that acquisition of language in children and in chimpanzees are similar in imitation, shaping and molding.


The essay discussed conflicting views whether apes can learn language or not. Savage- Rumbaugh argued in favor of the debate as Wallman was of the contrary opinion. The essay analyzed both opposing points of views and supported Savage- Rumbaugh’s view since it has evidence, vivid examples and specific indications of apes learning of language compared to Wallman who cited unsuccessful experiments and argued from linguistic point of view. The essay has shown that apes can learn language from overwhelming evidence from Lana, the chimpanzee who uttered six percent novel sentences different from what she was taught. Austin and Sherman were also able to use symbols in communication by showing what they intended to do before doing it. However, apes are unable to construct sentences of multiple words or acquire words the same way as children.


Endicott, K. M., & Welsch, R. L. (2012). Taking sides. Boston: McGraw-Hill Higher Education.

Fouts, R., Mills,S.T. (1997). Next of kin: my conversation with Chimpanzees, Avon Books, New York

Greenfield, P., &  Savage-Rumbaugh, S. (1990), Grammatical combination in pan paniscus, in Parker and Gibson (eds.), “Language” and Intelligence in Monkeys and apes, Cmabridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 540-578

Hayes K J, Nissen C (1971). Higher mental functions of a homeraised chimpanzee. In: SchrierA M, Stollnitz F (eds.) Behavior of Nonhuman Primates: Modern Research Trends. Academic Press, New York, Vol. 4, pp. 59–115

Kottak, C. P. (2010). Anthropology: Appreciating human diversity. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Rumbaugh, D. M. (1977). Language learning by a chimpanzee: The Lana project. New York: Academic Press.

Savage-Rumbaugh, E. S. (1986). Ape language: From conditioned response to symbol. New York: Columbia University Press.

Savage-Rumbaugh, E. S., & Lewin, R. (1994). Kanzi: The ape at the brink of the human mind. New York: Wiley.

Terrace, H. S. (1979). Nim. New York: Knopf.

Wallman, J. (1992). Aping language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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