snopes.com  

Go Back   snopes.com > Urban Legends > Language

Reply
 
Thread Tools Display Modes
  #1  
Old 07 July 2008, 04:13 AM
I'mNotDedalus's Avatar
I'mNotDedalus I'mNotDedalus is offline
 
Join Date: 09 February 2005
Location: Chicago, IL
Posts: 4,960
Default On the Myth of Ape Language

Noam Chomsky interviewed by Matt Aames on the subject of teaching other primates systems of human language:

Quote:
CHOMSKY: ...When we turn to the study of humans, for some reason irrationality commonly prevails -- possibly a reflection of old-fashioned dualism -- and it is considered significant that apes (or birds, which tend to do much better) can be trained to mimic some superficial aspects of human language. But the same rational criteria should hold as in the case of bees and graduate students. Possibly training graduate students to mimic the waggle dance could teach us something about human capacity, though it's unlikely. Similarly, it's possible that training apes to do things with signs can teach us something about the cognitive capacities of apes. That's the way the matter is approached by serious scientists, like Anne and David Premack. Others prefer to fool themselves.

...Namely, if apes have this fantastic capacity, surely a major component of humans extraordinary biological success (in the technical sense), then how come they haven't used it? It's as if humans can really fly, but won't know it until some trainer comes along to teach them. Not inconceivable, but a biological problem, and about the only conceivable scientific consequence of the ape-language experiments, except what they might teach us about ape intelligence by training apes to deal with problems that are outside their normal cognitive range. This is all sentimentality of the worst sort.
Occasionally, I'll hear people mention (in awed, flawed, and altogether false summation) studies where chimps were "taught" ASL. In the interview, Chomsky gives a brief critique of a book that's been making the regular rounds this year: Nim Chimpsky by Elizabeth Hess. Then there was that ridiculous book put out by Crichton (Congo?) that featured the signing gorilla, giving us a glorious insight into the animal's consciousness.

Is there anything to these studies? I was under the impression that biologists have basically resigned themselves to the belief that a primate will eventually "sign" what is expected of it to sign in order to get a food-reward; there isn't any kind of language acquisition taking place. Is this research still ongoing and/or yielding any new results?
Reply With Quote
  #2  
Old 07 July 2008, 06:33 AM
Salamander Salamander is offline
 
Join Date: 14 June 2005
Location: Perth, Western Australia
Posts: 5,035
Australia

One of the National Geographic magazines in the last year had an article on animal intelligence that was quite an interesting read. Only a relatively small section was discussing primates using ASL, the rest of the article featured a wide range of animals (from dogs to dolphins and even blue jays). They covered Alex, the African Grey parrot and the research that had been done by Dr. Irene Pepperberg. There is also Kanzi who ended up doing far better at the whole word thing that his mother.

The interesting thing worth noting is that research isn't just being done on making animals communicate but to also recognise other cognitive functions (like Blue Jays with their tiny bird brains but still having an expanded sense of self). I don't know if any of that is what you were after.
Reply With Quote
  #3  
Old 07 July 2008, 08:19 AM
Sylvanz's Avatar
Sylvanz Sylvanz is offline
 
Join Date: 23 June 2001
Location: Michigan
Posts: 7,958
Ponder

As I recall from my long ago linguistics class: Animals have "Communications Systems," not "language." They cannot create unique expressions of ideas. They can communicate with ASL only what they could cognate without it i.e. hunger, thirst, fear, discomfort, and other primitive and basic communications. They cannot create complex and unique sentences that encompass ideas. I do not claim to be an expert or that this is the last word on animal communication, but that was the consensus in the linguistics circles about six years ago as far as I was instructed.

P&LL, Syl'one of the few things I liked about that class'vanz
Reply With Quote
  #4  
Old 07 July 2008, 09:28 AM
Salamander Salamander is offline
 
Join Date: 14 June 2005
Location: Perth, Western Australia
Posts: 5,035
Australia

Quote:
Originally Posted by Sylvanz View Post
As I recall from my long ago linguistics class: Animals have "Communications Systems," not "language." They cannot create unique expressions of ideas. They can communicate with ASL only what they could cognate without it i.e. hunger, thirst, fear, discomfort, and other primitive and basic communications. They cannot create complex and unique sentences that encompass ideas. I do not claim to be an expert or that this is the last word on animal communication, but that was the consensus in the linguistics circles about six years ago as far as I was instructed.

P&LL, Syl'one of the few things I liked about that class'vanz
I think that is still up for debate, or at least has the appearance of being so at any rate (but I'm not an expert in any related field... merely an interested observer who has an acknowledged bias in favour of animals). Perhaps it has much more in common with the Evolution vs ID/Creationism "debate" where to the uninformed observer the fact that there are continuing arguments indicates the matter hasn't been conclusively settled one way or the other, whereas those educated on the topic know things have been settled for some time now (although refinements continue to be made) and it is only the nutjobs that are claiming otherwise.
Reply With Quote
  #5  
Old 07 July 2008, 03:56 PM
geminilee's Avatar
geminilee geminilee is offline
 
Join Date: 02 December 2005
Location: New Orleans, LA
Posts: 11,518
Default

Quote:
Originally Posted by Sylvanz View Post
As I recall from my long ago linguistics class: Animals have "Communications Systems," not "language." They cannot create unique expressions of ideas. They can communicate with ASL only what they could cognate without it i.e. hunger, thirst, fear, discomfort, and other primitive and basic communications.
Wow, they have people who can read ape's minds and know what they are thinking now? Too cool!


As I understand it, there are real, serious limitations to the method commonly used to teach apes communication. Generally training is started when the apes are adult, and there is a food based reward system. (Also the fact that apes are not as dexterous as humans, and not well suited to producing ASL).

There have been better examples of ape communication, although the best example we have was never "trained" to communicate. If anyone is really interested in the subject, look um Kanzi the bonobo. His mother was part of a communication study involving boards with pictures (which gets around the fact that apes have trouble forming the patterns needed to produce ASL) and Kanzi was allowed from birth to be with her while she was being trained. In effect, he was immersed in this method of communication from birth much the way a human infant is, and the results are much better than any other experiment I have ever read of.
Reply With Quote
  #6  
Old 07 July 2008, 05:54 PM
Joostik's Avatar
Joostik Joostik is offline
 
Join Date: 14 July 2003
Location: Utrecht, Netherlands
Posts: 1,789
Default

Quote:
if apes have this fantastic capacity, surely a major component of humans extraordinary biological success (in the technical sense), then how come they haven't used it?
This presupposes evolution as a linear process with only one ideal end result. Even if apes would have this capacity (I'm not saying they do) they simply may have no use for it in their normal life. They could still have it as a vestigal characteristic. According to some scientists, the ancestors of modern apes may have been more human-like than their modern descendants. Apes seem to have a huge surplus intelligence, which may not be necessary for plain survival but rather helps them in their social interactions.

Quote:
It's as if humans can really fly, but won't know it until some trainer comes along to teach them.
Flying is a major component of the extraordinary biological success of the class of birds, in general. Still, some birds can fly but hardly ever use this talent. Some species of birds completely lose the capacity.
Reply With Quote
  #7  
Old 07 July 2008, 05:56 PM
Keeper of the Mad Bunnies's Avatar
Keeper of the Mad Bunnies Keeper of the Mad Bunnies is offline
 
Join Date: 07 January 2003
Location: Detroit, MI
Posts: 1,258
Reading

While it has beena while since I researched the topic and I am at work without access to references, here are some starting points.

Sue Savage-Rumbaugh is the researcher who worked with Kanzi. While still considered controversial, I remember her work as being very meticulous and careful.

Crichton probably was modelling his gorilla on Koko, who, with Washoe the chimpanzee, are probably the best known and worst cases to use on the subject.

As for Chomsky, how does he know that apes do not communicate in the wild? He is correct in that we have been very homocentric in our approach to the question, but that does not mean the capacity is not used in the wild. Furthermore, it may not be used because there is not a need in the environment.

While the subject is still very controversial, I believe we will find language ability, like all other traits, are found along a spectrum and there isn't any one aspect that is uniquely human.
Reply With Quote
  #8  
Old 07 July 2008, 06:05 PM
geminilee's Avatar
geminilee geminilee is offline
 
Join Date: 02 December 2005
Location: New Orleans, LA
Posts: 11,518
Default

Quote:
Originally Posted by Keeper of the Mad Bunnies View Post
As for Chomsky, how does he know that apes do not communicate in the wild? He is correct in that we have been very homocentric in our approach to the question, but that does not mean the capacity is not used in the wild.
I have done a bit of reading on the subject, and the criteria for what is "communication" in animals is extremely strict. I doubt most human communication would pass the test, unless of course you are starting with the mindset that humans do communicate.

An utterance only counts as a "word" if it is responded to in the same way every time (and it has to garner an active, motion response.) Honestly, I can't think of many human communications that would count as "words" under this definition, other than our alarm calls (like "FIRE!"). Most human communication does not result in action on the part of the listener, and even those that sometimes do ("Have a seat." or "Let's go find someplace to eat.") are not always followed by appropriate actions (often people will say they do not feel like sitting or eating).
Reply With Quote
  #9  
Old 07 July 2008, 06:36 PM
pinqy pinqy is offline
 
Join Date: 20 February 2000
Location: Northern Virginia
Posts: 11,647
Default

Quote:
Quote:
Originally Posted by Salamander View Post
The interesting thing worth noting is that research isn't just being done on making animals communicate but to also recognise other cognitive functions (like Blue Jays with their tiny bird brains but still having an expanded sense of self). I don't know if any of that is what you were after.
Quote:
Originally Posted by geminilee View Post
As I understand it, there are real, serious limitations to the method commonly used to teach apes communication. Generally training is started when the apes are adult, and there is a food based reward system. (Also the fact that apes are not as dexterous as humans, and not well suited to producing ASL).

There have been better examples of ape communication, although the best example we have was never "trained" to communicate. If anyone is really interested in the subject, look um Kanzi the bonobo. His mother was part of a communication study involving boards with pictures (which gets around the fact that apes have trouble forming the patterns needed to produce ASL) and Kanzi was allowed from birth to be with her while she was being trained. In effect, he was immersed in this method of communication from birth much the way a human infant is, and the results are much better than any other experiment I have ever read of.
Quote:
Originally Posted by Keeper of the Mad Bunnies View Post
As for Chomsky, how does he know that apes do not communicate in the wild? He is correct in that we have been very homocentric in our approach to the question, but that does not mean the capacity is not used in the wild. Furthermore, it may not be used because there is not a need in the environment.

While the subject is still very controversial, I believe we will find language ability, like all other traits, are found along a spectrum and there isn't any one aspect that is uniquely human.
Ok, I thought the article was clear, but it seems not.....Communication and Language are not the same thing and not interchangeable. I am not aware of anyone who thinks that animals cannot communicate...it's clear they do. But that's not Language. If I'm driving and someone starts to swerve into my lane and I honk my horn, that's communication, but not language.

If I exclaim "Hey!" or "Dude!" I can have multiple meanings for either of those depending on tone, volume, etc, and covey quite a bit of information, but still, that's communication, but not language. Language is a form of communication and the generally agreed upon distinction between language and other forms of communication is grammar. IIRC, the ability to convey abstract thoughts is also usually considered a component.

Quote:
Originally Posted by geminilee View Post
I have done a bit of reading on the subject, and the criteria for what is "communication" in animals is extremely strict. I doubt most human communication would pass the test, unless of course you are starting with the mindset that humans do communicate.
I'd have to read for myself what you're talking about. To the best of my knowledge the criteria for animal communication is simply the conveyance of meaning.

pinqy
Reply With Quote
  #10  
Old 07 July 2008, 06:55 PM
geminilee's Avatar
geminilee geminilee is offline
 
Join Date: 02 December 2005
Location: New Orleans, LA
Posts: 11,518
Default

Quote:
Originally Posted by pinqy View Post

I'd have to read for myself what you're talking about. To the best of my knowledge the criteria for animal communication is simply the conveyance of meaning.

pinqy
How do they judge that meaning is conveyed? By a resulting action. And, to be sure that the action is not coincidental, the action must happen every time the utterance is made.

I am sorry for my loose language in using communication to substitute for language. I actually was using it as shorthand for "communication with humans" not communication between animals.
Reply With Quote
  #11  
Old 07 July 2008, 09:41 PM
Keeper of the Mad Bunnies's Avatar
Keeper of the Mad Bunnies Keeper of the Mad Bunnies is offline
 
Join Date: 07 January 2003
Location: Detroit, MI
Posts: 1,258
Reading

Quote:
Originally Posted by pinqy View Post
Language is a form of communication and the generally agreed upon distinction between language and other forms of communication is grammar. IIRC, the ability to convey abstract thoughts is also usually considered a component.
pinqy
And most people, when talking about animal communication, tend to use language and communication interchangeably. I was not attempting to be rigorous in the initial response.

Quote:
Kanzi learned to combine these symbols in regular ways, or in what linguists call"proto-grammar."Once, Savage-Rumbaugh says, on an outing in a forest by the Georgia State University laboratory where he was raised, Kanzi touched the symbols for"marshmallow"and"fire."Given matches and marshmallows, Kanzi snapped twigs for a fire, lit them with the matches and toasted the marshmallows on a stick.
Speaking Bonobo

Quote:
In another study,we found that some monkeys are able to combine some of their vocalisations in systematic ways to create different combinations with separate meanings. Our playback experiments showed that it was the combinations of calls, rather than the individual calls themselves, which carried the meaning, an example of simple primate ‘grammar’.
Quote:
Our exhibit illustrates the various ways in which non-human primates produce signals that are meaningful for recipients, how they combine some of their signals in rule-governed ways, and how many of their communications are the result of their understanding of others as social beings that play unique roles in their societies.
The primate roots of human language

Of course, even if these examples hold true, the 'goal posts' will be moved again. Language is one of the last bastions of supposed human uniqueness and (usually unsaid) superiority.
Reply With Quote
  #12  
Old 07 July 2008, 10:55 PM
Silas Sparkhammer's Avatar
Silas Sparkhammer Silas Sparkhammer is offline
 
Join Date: 22 September 2000
Location: San Diego, CA
Posts: 26,843
Whalephant

Quote:
Originally Posted by Keeper of the Mad Bunnies View Post
. . . Of course, even if these examples hold true, the 'goal posts' will be moved again. Language is one of the last bastions of supposed human uniqueness and (usually unsaid) superiority.
Heh. They used to say that about playing chess...then about winning chess...then about winning at the grand-master level...

Silas
Reply With Quote
  #13  
Old 08 July 2008, 12:22 AM
DevilBunny's Avatar
DevilBunny DevilBunny is offline
 
Join Date: 20 February 2002
Location: Newbury, UK
Posts: 1,981
Default

Quote:
Originally Posted by Keeper of the Mad Bunnies View Post
Of course, even if these examples hold true, the 'goal posts' will be moved again.
Only too true. My second interview to get into Oxford (many long years ago) focussed on animal communication. Every time I gave a 'well, to say chimps can use language, they'd have to do X' statement, Dr Passingham would respond with 'they do.' And I'd shift the criteria.

Eventually I spotted what I was doing, and said, 'OK then, chimps can use language'. I seriously think that it was my finally facing up to reality (or at least the hypothetical 'reality' of that interview) that got me onto that course.

Nobody wants chimps to be capable of language, even to the most basic and limited extent. It raises far too many moral dilemmas.
Reply With Quote
  #14  
Old 08 July 2008, 12:31 AM
Brad from Georgia's Avatar
Brad from Georgia Brad from Georgia is offline
 
Join Date: 21 June 2000
Location: Snellvile, GA
Posts: 13,179
Default

I'm not going to name names, but I'm pretty sure at least two bonobos post on this board.
Reply With Quote
  #15  
Old 08 July 2008, 01:17 AM
Silas Sparkhammer's Avatar
Silas Sparkhammer Silas Sparkhammer is offline
 
Join Date: 22 September 2000
Location: San Diego, CA
Posts: 26,843
Whalephant

Quote:
Originally Posted by DevilBunny View Post
. . . Nobody wants chimps to be capable of language, even to the most basic and limited extent. It raises far too many moral dilemmas.
Strangely enough, I would err in exactly that way: I would (and do!) want chimps to be capable of language, and of highly abstract patterns of thought. Dolphins too. And dogs and pigs. I'm one of those for whom double-blind experiments were created, as I would be too likely to see evidence for animal-language-use where it might not actually exist.

Silas
Reply With Quote
  #16  
Old 08 July 2008, 01:28 AM
geminilee's Avatar
geminilee geminilee is offline
 
Join Date: 02 December 2005
Location: New Orleans, LA
Posts: 11,518
Default

Quote:
Originally Posted by Silas Sparkhammer View Post
I'm one of those for whom double-blind experiments were created, as I would be too likely to see evidence for animal-language-use where it might not actually exist.
I hope that I am objective enough about it to be able to catch any of the errors of this sort I may well eventually make. But I really do have a hard time believing that intelligence and language sprang fully formed into existence with the advent of humans. Almost any other adaptive trait I can think of has partial forms, a continuum. For one thing, evolution doesn't make large jumps for the most part, and for another evolution seems to use the same trick multiple times if it works. Cheetahs can run very fast... but other animals can run as well, with varying degrees of speed. Bats have great hearing and sonar... but several other animals also have sonar, or varying degrees of highly-developed hearing. I think that language is just too good a trick for evolution to only have tried it the one time.
Reply With Quote
  #17  
Old 08 July 2008, 01:49 AM
Jay Temple's Avatar
Jay Temple Jay Temple is offline
 
Join Date: 25 September 2003
Location: St. Louis, MO
Posts: 9,104
Default

Quote:
Originally Posted by Sylvanz View Post
As I recall from my long ago linguistics class: Animals have "Communications Systems," not "language." They cannot create unique expressions of ideas. They can communicate with ASL only what they could cognate without it i.e. hunger, thirst, fear, discomfort, and other primitive and basic communications. They cannot create complex and unique sentences that encompass ideas.
As I recall from my long-ago ASL class: Native ASL speakers themselves do not ordinarily create complex sentences. (To cite a game that we played: "Here's the story of a man named Brady," becomes, "Here's a story. The man's name is Brady.") We would not deny, however, that they are in fact learning language.
Reply With Quote
  #18  
Old 08 July 2008, 05:39 PM
Keeper of the Mad Bunnies's Avatar
Keeper of the Mad Bunnies Keeper of the Mad Bunnies is offline
 
Join Date: 07 January 2003
Location: Detroit, MI
Posts: 1,258
Default

Quote:
Originally Posted by Silas Sparkhammer View Post
Strangely enough, I would err in exactly that way: I would (and do!) want chimps to be capable of language, and of highly abstract patterns of thought. Dolphins too. And dogs and pigs. I'm one of those for whom double-blind experiments were created, as I would be too likely to see evidence for animal-language-use where it might not actually exist.

Silas
Sials, this is one of the greatest dilemmas in the field of ethology! If you err in one direction, then everything is pre-programmed and instinctual. If you err the other direction, you see what you want to see, whether it is there or not. Walking that fine line between hope and truth is very difficult.

Please read up on Savage-Rumbaugh. From what I remember, she was very good at setting up experiements that were as neutral as possible. I can see if I have any dolphin references as well, if you are interested. I seem to recall experiments that also used an electronic interface to control for reading too much into the responses.
Reply With Quote
  #19  
Old 09 July 2008, 12:50 AM
Salamander Salamander is offline
 
Join Date: 14 June 2005
Location: Perth, Western Australia
Posts: 5,035
Australia

Quote:
Originally Posted by pinqy View Post
Ok, I thought the article was clear, but it seems not.....Communication and Language are not the same thing and not interchangeable. I am not aware of anyone who thinks that animals cannot communicate...it's clear they do. But that's not Language. If I'm driving and someone starts to swerve into my lane and I honk my horn, that's communication, but not language.
Hey... and I thought it was pretty clear that I was responding to IND's query as to whether there is still ongoing research rather than responding to the article.

I guess it must've been a communication vs language thing
Reply With Quote
Reply

Thread Tools
Display Modes

Posting Rules
You may not post new threads
You may not post replies
You may not post attachments
You may not edit your posts

BB code is On
Smilies are On
[IMG] code is On
HTML code is On

Forum Jump


All times are GMT. The time now is 09:48 PM.


Powered by vBulletin® Version 3.8.7
Copyright ©2000 - 2018, vBulletin Solutions, Inc.