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Talking Chimpanzees? Sounds Bananas

How much can they understand each other?

Language is the pinnacle of evolution; it has allowed humans to communicate with each other to build a complex network of interactions which has resulted in the world we live in today.

For as long as language has existed so has the idea that it is an entirely human concept. Many philosophers such as Descartes believed it to be what separates us from the animals. Pet owners may have sat at home on many occasions willing their pets to speak, and however ridiculous it may seem these ideas are being challenged by animals and researchers all the time.

In the last two decades a primatologist named Sue Savage-Rumbaugh has been working with a particular group of Bonobo Chimps investigating their ability to learn language. Two fascinating Bonobos named Kanzi and Panabanisha have shocked the world with how readily they have acquired language and they continue to amaze with their understanding of language and their desire to communicate with humans.

Kanzi initially attended lessons with his mother, Matata, who was being taught to use a lexigram. A lexigram is a special kind of keyboard containing pictures of objects and concepts. Kanzi’s mother Matata showed little interest in the lessons, however to the great surprise of the researchers Kanzi acquired the skills without being taught, merely by observing his mother. This made Kanzi the first ape ever to learn language naturalistically and not through direct training. Overtime with the aid of Kanzi, Panabanisha – Kanzi’s adopted sister – was also able to learn to communicate using the lexigram. They now have a vocabulary of a few thousand words and have continued to astonish those around them with their ability to communicate and understand.

Kanzi in particular has a great understanding of humans and a genuine desire to communicate with humans and this may be the driving force behind his incredible intelligence. In one instance, when walking through the woods, Kanzi stopped and turned to Sue then pointed at his lexigram indicating symbols for ‘fire’, ‘stick’ and ‘marshmallow’ showing his love of human traditions and marshmallows! Not only does Kanzi understand many of the things that humans do but he also seems to have acquired the ability to appreciate the emotions associated with words as they are communicated. A visiting journalist showed Kanzi her hand which was missing one finger and explained that she was missing one finger, this prompted Kanzi to point to his symbol for ’hurt’. Though this seems like an obvious link to make, to infer the mental state of another through language is a sign of great intelligence and very few animals are thought to have this ability.

Though Kanzi’s ability to communicate using the lexigram is truly remarkable it is not quite as complex as vocal communication. Though animals often do use sound to communicate it is not thought to have semantic meaning. In the past apes have been taught to use sign language, but what makes these particular chimps special? As mentioned earlier Kanzi had an adopted sister named Panabanisha who has also learnt to communicate using the lexigram. In a cunning experiment, they were separated into two rooms where they were not able to see each other. A microphone was placed in Kanzi’s room and a speaker in Panabanisha and the sound was piped from one to the other. Kanzi was shown a picture of yoghurt and after his vocalisations were played to Panabanisha, incredibly with no other cues other than Kanzi’s vocalisations, Panabanisha pointed to a picture of yoghurt on her lexigram! This was remarkable; it was a clear sign that there was some actual meaning in the vocalisations of the chimpanzees!

However don’t get too excited:  this does not mean that Kanzi will ever be able to speak English, the differences in the sizes of our vocal tracts would never allow it, but if Kanzi and Panabanisha can speak to each other with meaning, what about other Bonobos? The question now is whether they learnt to speak to each other because of learning the language of the lexigram, or whether we are simply beginning to understand their language with the aid of Kanzi and Panabanisha who have the ability to both communicate with chimps and humans.
Whatever the answer, there is no doubting the truly remarkable abilities of both Kanzi and Panabanisha and the exciting new possibilities of discovering other animals that are able to communicate using language.

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