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Linguistic comprehension in chimps

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Would it be possible for a primate to understand human language in the same way that human babies do, if the animal was exposed to speech from birth?

Pioneering research by Professor Sue Savage-Rumbaugh of Georgia State University indicates that a pair of bonobos, Kanzi and Panbanisha, reared alongside humans, have been able to develop linguistic comprehension and communication abilities equivalent to that of a three-year-old child - without any explicit training or encouragement.

Example? Panbanisha is a 14-year-old bonobo who uses a keyboard with symbols that trigger a synthesized vocal sound to say "Chase crisscross-corners blackberries later," followed a few seconds later by the statement "Open collar later."

Bill Fields, one of the researchers, says that a more idiomatically atuned human would understand this to read "lets go to crisscross-corners, because there are blackberries there, a little later, OK? We will open the door and put on the collar and go later, OK?"

Panbanisha "speaks" 250 words, and understands 3,000 more from listening to her handler's speech in conjunction with their use of the keypad.

Moreover, the bonobos, a rare species of chimpanzee renowned for their intelligence and bipedal mobility, have shown an understanding of the difference between subject and object. They can also tell whether a verb is modifying a main clause or a subordinate clause.

"Chimps most definitely exhibit traits of conscience, a sense of ethics of what is right and wrong," says Mr. Fields.

He recounts an episode when he arrived at the lab.

"I knew something wasn't right and I asked [Panbanisha], 'What's wrong?' " he recalls. "Panbanisha replied, 'Kanzi bad keyboard.' When I walked into the group room, I didn't see anything wrong.

"I asked [a colleague], Liz, what did Kanzi do to the keyboard?" Field recounts. "Liz explained that Kanzi had destroyed it and asked how did I find out?"

This shows that the bonobos are able to talk about past events and cognize them as such.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society


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