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How To Learn Sign Language

Can Apes Really “Talk” To Humans?

There’s a long history of humans trying to
get apes to talk to them But will we ever get close to a true conversation? Scientific efforts to talk to animals have
often focused on the great apes our closest, cleverest cousins I grew up believing that apes COULD talk to humans using sign language I remember this one Reading Rainbow episode
about a gorilla named Koko “Who is that?” Penny interprets: “Think me there.” “That’s very good.” This blew my mind! Here was an animal whould could talk to me! But years later, in college, my dream was shattered by professor Robert Sapolsky. He said, in a lecture, that all that stuff
with Koko was baloney. “There were no data. Scientists couldn’t make any sense of it because
there were no numbers. There was no anything you can actually analyze. And then you look at the films Wait, what? Can Koko use language or not? Looking for answers I dove into the long history
of ape language studies One of the earliest experiments was captured in this 1932 film Two psychologists – Luella and Winthrop Kellog – asked If we raised an ape as a human, would it start to speak? So they brought up Gua — a chimpanzee —
alongside their own son, Donald. She learned to respond to English words and
phrases – faster than Donald actually – things like “Get down!” and “Don’t touch” But was this any different than a dog
being conditioned to respond to … That doesn’t mean this dog understands English. And there wasn’t any evidence that Gua did either. There’s something really disturbing about
this experiment Is it right to forever change the life of
an ape — who could live 50 years just to satisfy our curiosity? This study from the late 40s wasn’t any better Viki’s keepers tried to teach her to speak by literally shaping her lips with their fingers She learned to form a few words … sort of … Scientists decided that spoken language wasn’t the way to go But they’d noticed that in the wild, chimpanzees use a lot of gestures Maybe they could be taught a few words of American Sign Language! Enter Washoe. As you can see in these videos Washoe had an all-American childhood. She lived with psychologists Trixie and Allen Gardner And they taught her to use a few signs based on ASL signs for dog for cat for … creepy baby Wasn’t this incredible! Washoe could sign hundreds of words
and seemed, to her caretakers, to combine the signs into new sentences – one of the hallmarks of human language “ME EAT TIME EAT” When Washoe saw a swan, she made the signs for “water” and “bird” What a breakthrough! People started teaching other apes to sign. And psychology graduate student
Penny Patterson started teaching Koko Penny said Koko didn’t just talk about objects “Were you sad?” She expressed her emotions “What? Frown lips, bad, frown” Koko became a celebrity I was convinced! But other people were a bit more skeptical People like Herbert Terrace – a psychologist at Columbia He was working with another ape – Nim Chimpsky Nim used a bunch of signs, just like Washoe and Koko But Terrace took a cold hard look at the videos of Nim And he also went back and analyzed the videos of other apes He said all those claims about ape language
were nothing but wishful thinking Take the idea that apes could combine signs
to form new meanings Maybe when Washoe saw a swan
and signed “water bird” she was just separately pointing out water
and a bird. But his skepticism went much further. He doubted the apes even understood
the words they were signing When the trainers would ask questions
the apes would just guess at the right sign They’d look for cues in the trainer’s body language or simply mimic the trainers gestures The apes weren’t using language like we would to ask questions or … express opinions They just wanted to get food and affection Nim’s longest recorded “sentence” was “Give orange me give eat orange me eat orange
give me eat orange give me you.” Terrace said the trainers were like parents
eager to see their child learning They’d confidently interpret vague gestures
and find the meanings they were looking for. Plenty of people objected to Terrace’s study in large part because they said Nim was treated very badly But the damage to Nim (and the whole field) was done Funding for ape language research dried up. So where does that leave us? ARE all these claims of talking apes baloney? Well, I here’s one more study that’s still going on … Kanzi is a bonobo – a smaller cousin of the chimpanzee He doesn’t use hand signs – he uses these
icons called lexigrams He selects them on a screen This one represents dog This one is tickle. This one … yogurt. The touch screen system is less ambiguous
than hand signing. We can be more certain that Kanzi is choosing
his words intentionally and there’s less room for humans to overinterpret
what they think he’s saying The results are a bit more scientifically rigorous And what do these results show? Kanzi knows hundreds of lexigrams – he uses
them correctly 9 times out of 10 “Blueberries?” Computer: “BLUEBERRY.” And he also seems to get some abstract ideas like “bad” or Computer: “GOOD.” But he rarely combines lexigrams to convey new ideas Most of the time, he just uses them to try
and get things he likes “BLUEBERRY.” “BLUEBERRY. BLUEBERRY.” When people combine words he knows to create a command he’s never heard before, Kanzi does respond In this video he isn’t getting any cues from this woman’s face Woman: “Can you put the pine needles in the refrigerator?” But you have to keep it simple. Kanzi wouldn’t understand if you asked him to
put the pine needles AND the blueberries in the fridge. So is Kanzi using language the way humans do? People are still arguing. But it’s pretty clear that I’ll never get to
have a real human-style conversation with an ape. And maybe that’s okay. These are amazing, intelligent animals who
do communicate a lot in their own way. And maybe if I stop wanting them
to be furry little humans I might really get to know them. What do you think? Are these apes using language? Post your comments, subscribe to our channel,
and submit your questions here! If you want to learn more about the conversations
and controversies surrounding these ape language studies I put a lot of links down in the description

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