American Sign Language Among Primates

Primates are members of the mammalian order Primates, which includes prosimians, or lower primates, and anthropoids (monkeys, apes, and humans). Apes are any primates of the subfamily Hominoidea, including the small apes and the great apes. The gorilla (Gorilla gorilla) is the largest of the great apes. Another great ape is the chimpanzee. The larger member of the chimpanzee family is the common chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes), and the smaller member is the bonobo (Pan paniscus) or the pygmy chimpanzee.

To obtain an understanding of their evolutionary roots, human beings have turned to the great apes, especially chimpanzees, because they are humans' closest living relatives, sharing as much as 98 percent of identical genetic material. Many attempts have been made to teach apes to learn language. Early attempts to raise apes along with human babies in the hope that these human-reared apes would learn to speak human language ended in failure, but researchers came to realize that apes do not have the vocal structure necessary for producing human speech sounds. Enlightened by the Braille system of writing for the blind and sign language for the deaf, researchers began to employ nonverbal symbolic systems, including plastic chips (David Pre-mack's chimp Sarah), computer lexigrams (Duane

Rumbaugh's chimp Lana), and American Sign Language (ASL). This line of research has yielded interesting results. Allen and Beatrice Gardner's chimp Washoe acquired ASL, and, moreover, she began to combine words and taught her adopted son, Loulis, to use ASL. Twelve percent of the ASL utterances produced by Herbert Terrace's chimp Nim were spontaneous. Francine Patterson's gorilla Koko mastered six hundred ASL words. Through natural observation and social interaction, Sue Savage-Rumbaugh's bonobo Kanzi understands spoken English and uses sign language and computer buttons in communication.

Language research with primates creates a path for humans to search for their links to animals. There are many potential research areas, such as body language, cultural transmission of learned language over generations, and the impact of language-trained chimpanzees living with naive peers in their natural environment, just to mention a few. On the other hand, scientists are concerned about the well-being and the rights of the primates, especially in the areas of early separation from the mother, or lab controls. Many questions have no answers yet, but one thing is certain—scientific inquiry will go on, and it will be done with good ethical concerns.

—Ling-Yi Zhou different from"), and counting (from one to six).

Two Hawaii bottle-nosed dolphins (Tursiops truncatus), trained by Louis Herman and his colleagues, are Phoenix, with an acoustic language, and Akekamai (Ake), with a gesture-based language. They can correctly carry out commands in varied word orders (syntax) with different meanings. They have further demonstrated their semantic and grammatical knowledge by either not executing grammatically incorrect and semanti-cally nonexecutable orders or by extracting an executable segment from an anomalous string and then completing the task according to the meaning provided in that specific syntactic structure.

Sue Savage-Rumbaugh's bonobo Kanzi is an exciting language star. Kanzi understands spoken English and uses hand signals as well as geometric symbols, and moreover, he has learned all that without explicit instruction but by mere social observation and interaction, just as a human baby learns a language. This natural learning process was successfully replicated with Kanzi's sister, Mulika.

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