Why Were Projects Funded to Teach the Equivalent of Human Language to Primates?
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Why Were Projects Funded to Teach the Equivalent of Human Language to Primates? Describe a variety of such projects, indicating how and why they differed, and discuss the conclusions that were/may be drawn from the results. The capacity for language is thought by many people to be a trait unique to the human race. Through language we can express an infinite number of thoughts and ideas; describe impossible events or inform people of our deepest emotions and most profound imaginings. The gap between humans and animals can be said to be represented by the gap between mere communication and the intricacies of language. But, if animals could be taught language, what implications would this have on our opinion of our unique humanness? As man's closest evolutionary relative, chimpanzees share 98.4%1 of our DNA - indeed, they are more closely related to mankind than they are to gorillas2. Could they also share our ability to conceive and comprehend language? The ability of these primates to understand our language would have a profound effect on our understanding of the evolution of the human race and, particularly, the human mind. This could also result in beneficial changes to the way in which language is taught to people with severe learning difficulties.
From infancy, Washoe was taught to speak American Sign Language, otherwise known as Ameslan, which is a gestural rather than a spoken language. Washoe quickly learned to use the signs the Gardeners taught her, and by the time she had learned 8-10 signs, was able to use them in combinations in sentences to which she had never been specifically exposed. The first word Washoe was taught was "more", which she learned in relation to play. She was spontaneously able to apply the word to other areas of her experience, such as food, demonstrating her understanding of the meaning of the word. Washoe has demonstrated use of a vocabulary of over 240 signs7. Criticism has been made about Washoe's ability to place words in the syntactically correct order, but she has often demonstrated that she has the ability to do this if she is requested to. For example, when Washoe saw one of her keepers smoking a cigarette, she excitedly signed "Give me smoke, smoke Washoe, hurry give smoke". When her keeper asked her to sign properly, she replied, "Please give me that hot smoke."8. Washoe has also combined signs to produce new words, such as the phrase "Hot smoke" as used above for cigarette, or "Candy fruit"9 which she used when she first tasted watermelon.
With the tightening of requirements for language definition, it seems that a state of paradox has been reached, whereby a person can converse with a chimpanzee or a bonobo, yet without the creature 'officially' being capable of language. It could be said that the problem is not with the ability of the apes to acquire a degree of language, but with the definition of language itself. Alternatively, maybe the problem is whether or not people are willing to relinquish the idea of being unique amongst all creatures with regard to their linguistic standing, which is often seen as embodying the essential difference between the human and animal kingdoms. As we have seen, projects to determine whether primates could be taught the equivalent of human language have been funded because of the insights the outcome could have on our understanding of the evolution of the human race and the development of the human mind. A variety of methods have been used to achieve this aim, and the outcomes are hotly disputed by people on either side of the debate. Although people are split into two camps over the possible interpretations of the results of these projects, and in the absence of absolute proof either way, it is my personal belief that the animals discussed are indeed capable of comprehension and construction of at least a rudimentary form of a human language, despite the huge evolutionary gap that separates our two worlds.
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