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Linguistic Ability of Apes

Indeed, man is the most intelligent creature on earth. Even if it is the only animal endowed with the gift of speech, other animals like the chimpanzee, baboons, monkeys, gorillas, orangutans and bonobos also poses language and the ability to communicate. Language, in this context, refers to an organized open way of communication (Bonvillian, & Patterson, as cited in Shanker & King, 2002).

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The idea that apes have a language for communication has been so controversial with many scientists giving conflicting views (Kaufman, et al, 2010). Even if Lord Solly Zuckerman suggests that the apes don’t have a linguistic ability, I would like to strongly dispute this claim and argue that this is not true. Series of scientific researches have been carried out to give a more profound proof that these primates actually poses linguistic abilities just like we do.

It is also vital to note that this kind of research is important to us in many ways like training the insane individuals (Patterson, & Gordon, 2002).

My assertion that these primates have linguistic abilities is based on the researches that have been conducted in the past. Through the use of lexigrams, physical tokens and nguslanguage, these animals have been proved to be like us. Some of these researches are as listed herein:

  1. Petterson Francine was able to train Koko, a female gorilla who lived between 1971 to 2,000 to understand the use of more than 1,000 signs using the American Sign Language (ASL). This made it be able to use an approximate of 2,000 English words correctly (Tanner, Patterson, & Byrne, 2006). This definitely shows that these apes are just like us.
  2. In 1966, Beatrix Gurdner and his wife Allan Gurdner subjected Washoe (common chimpanzee) to a combination of babbling, imitation and instrumental conditioning procedures. This was also meant to unveil if they could be able to use ASL. Eventually, it was discovered that they were able to acquire, differentiate, transfer and combine various vocabularies. This also refutes Zuckerman’s claims and supports the fact that these apes are able to communicate like us.
  3. Herbert J. Terrace also carried out a very intensive research with Nim Chomsky who was also subjected to a series of sign language trainings. It was also found out that it could learn to use this technique. However, unlike humans, its speed of learning was relatively low. Just like others, it proved to us that the primates also have this quality.
  4. The research conducted at Bodongo Conservancy, Uganda by a group of researchers from the University of St. Andrew found out that chimpanzee was able to a perfect use of at least 65 distinct gestures to enhance their communication (Patterson, & Hillix, 2000).
  5. Sue Savage also carried out a research using Kanzi using of lexigram board. It was observed that it was able to generate vocabulary that enabled it to easily communicate with the researchers (McFarland, 2001). Hence, in 2001, Alexander F. Harisson reported that Kanzi was heard verbalizing a meaningful noun to his sister besides correctly answering 74% of the queries it was asked.

However, despite all this, people like Chomsky Noan still argue that this is not enough to put apes in a position of possessing a linguistic ability like humans. He says that apes do not follow grammatical and syntax rules besides being able to learn at a very slow speed as compared to man.


Kaufman, J.A., et al. (2010). Structural Diffusion MRI of a Gorilla Brain Performed Ex Vivo at 9.4 Tesla. In D. Broadfield, M. Yuan, K. Schick, & N. Toth (Eds.), The Human Brain Evolving: Pale neurological Studies in Honor of Ralph L. Holloway (pp. 171-181). Gosport: Sone Age Institute Press.

McFarland, R.K., & Patterson, F.G.P. (2001, March 28-31). Body composition in a prime adult male gorilla compared to a male of similar body mass and a female of similar age. 70th Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists. Kansas City, Missouri.

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Patterson, F.G.P., & Hillix, W.A. (2000). Language acquisition in lowland gorillas: What Project Koko has shown us. Russian Journal of Foreign Psychology, 13, 41-55.

Patterson, F.G.P., & Gordon, W. (2001). Twenty-seven years of Project Koko and Michael. In B. Galdikas, N. Briggs, L. Sheeran, G. Shapiro, & J. Goodall (Eds.), All apes great and cmall, Volume I: African apes (pp. 165-171). New York: Springer.

Shanker, S.G., & King, B.J. (2002). The emergence of a new paradigm in ape language research. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 25, 605–656.

Tanner, J.E., Patterson, F.G., & Byrne, R.W. (2006). The Development of Spontaneous Gestures in Zoo-living Gorillas and Sign-taught Gorillas: From Action and Location to Object Representation. The Journal of Developmental Processes, 1, 69-103.

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