Socrates, a great philosopher, speculated that without verbal or written language, one could communicate using sign language. Little did he know that more than 2,000 years later, animals would be able to tell us their thoughts, feelings, and emotions with their hands.
Today’s researchers continue to study whether animals can truly learn how to communicate through signing. While they primarily focus on great apes, they’re honing on other animals, too.
At least seven chimpanzees have been taught to communicate with humans and each other through sign language. In the 1970s, one chimp named Washoe was the one who started it all. Throughout her lifetime, the highly intelligent primate “spoke” about 350 words by using American Sign Language (ASL). Washoe raised her adopted son, Loulis, and taught him most of the hand signals he knows today.
Tatu, Dar, and Moja (three other chimpanzees) joined the mother-son duo at Central Washington University, where Washoe instructed them in ASL, too. Researchers discovered that the five chimpanzees used unique combinations of ASL words with each other to get points across. If one primate was unsure of what specific gesture to use, it described what it meant by stringing together multiple adjectives!
Meet Nim: Another ASL Chimp
In the 1970s (a big decade for teaching apes sign language), Columbia University was home to Neam “Nim” Chimpsky, a primate studied for his ability to learn and use ASL. His name was a playful spin on that of “the father of modern linguistics,” Noam Chomsky. Researchers argued that Nim needed more rigorous training than Washoe to truly master sign language. They were skeptical whether apes could really understand the meaning behind what they signed. Needless to say, Nim only learned a fraction of the words that Washoe could sign.
Lucy: the Chimp Raised as a Child
Lucy (also a chimpanzee) spent the first part of her life being treated as though she were a human child. The technique was thought to help chimpanzees pick up human language and communicate through ASL. While the study gained media attention, history does not look kindly on what happened. After all, Lucy was not raised by clinical scientists, but by hobbyists who ran a roadside zoo in Florida. After living at the zoo for six years, she was released back into the wild.
Western Lowland Gorillas
Have you heard of Koko, the western lowland gorilla? She won the hearts of Americans with her thoughtful communications using ASL. Koko was one-of-a-kind, raising kittens, expressing compassion, and helping scientists better understand the minds of great apes. Even celebrities enjoyed conversations with the famous gorilla! The late Robin Williams famously helped Koko recover some of her joy after one of her loved ones passed away.
Koko gained a three-year-old gorilla, Michael, to raise. Michael learned well over 600 words from their handlers. Both primates spent time expressing themselves through abstract painting when they weren’t signing. Michael also amused researchers by telling tall tales through ASL and calling others out when he thought they weren’t being honest.
Researchers hoped to find a suitable mate for Koko. So, they brought Ndume to join the Gorilla Foundation’s sanctuary residents. While she did not develop a romantic interest in Ndume, Koko did teach him to communicate through ASL. What a great teacher!
Bonobos are among the great apes that can use ASL to communicate with humans. The famous primates pioneered language studies throughout the 1960s and still today are considered very intelligent creatures. They even use tools like humans to accomplish tasks!
Kanzi, the bonobo pictured above, is considered the champion over all the language-learning animals. This ape accurately responded to 416 questions that required in-depth understanding with close to a 75% success rate. He communicates using a combination of sign language and a lexicon keyboard.
Batyr, a Very Special Elephant
You might be surprised to learn that elephants have participated in numerous studies regarding animals’ ability to learn and understand language. Evolutionary biologist Charles Darwin contributed to scientific interest in non-human skills and consciousness. Animal behaviorists continue to broaden our knowledge of what our co-inhabitants on Earth can do. All types of elephants are observed for their stunning capacity to grasp concepts beyond other creatures’ mental capacities.
Batyr, an Asian elephant, lives on in scientific publications, books, and various forms of media. He is famous for manipulating his trunk to communicate with humans. While the Asian elephant’s skills varied from typical sign language, he is worth mentioning for contributing to the interest necessary for further animal linguistic studies.
The pachyderm and his roughly 20-word vocabulary fascinated the public from the 1970s until his passing in the 1990s. Batyr helped pave the way for other species’ sign language documentation. So, who knows what the future will hold!