The way we see things

Chimps, Fingertips and Polyglottery: 3 Takes on Language Acquisition

November 03, 2011 by Glyph Admin

You live a new life for every new language you speak.  If you know only one language, you live only once."  - Czech proverb*

It’s easy to take language for granted. Particularly if you do not speak more than one language, have no trouble hearing or seeing, and have never tried talking to another species.

Living beings, human and otherwise, have been interacting since life on planet Earth began. This interaction often, though not always, involves communication with language. At its most rudimentary, communication is a tool for individual and/or group survival. Intentional signals convey our friendliness, danger, and interest, and they help determine whether beings are to continue “to be or not to be”, to quote Hamlet.

In communities of nonhuman creatures, communication has generally been considered – by humans, of course! – to be strictly instinctual. Any non-human communication we observe, such as the songs of birds or the the intricate dances of bees, seems quite distinct from the primary means of human communication – language.

For all its woeful inadequacies, the symbolic mechanism of spoken and written word remains one of the most efficient tools individuals have at their disposal to render thoughts, feelings, beliefs, hopes, fears, and other musings into some approximate and understandable form. Language is the means of preserving and disseminating our collective knowledge. Science, technology, literature, etc. must all ultimately find expression there. We can take language for granted when ordering lunch, but at other times, perhaps as we read a Shakespearean soliloquy, the magnificent elegance of language can leave us breathless.

In this 3-part series, we will discuss language acquisition from 3 different angles. First, we’ll touch on research done with chimps and sign language; next, we’ll explore methods used to learn languages when vision and/or hearing are impaired; and finally, we’ll consider some of the ins and outs of learning multiple languages as adult language learners.

We hope this topic will pique your own language-learning interests: happy language learning!

Part 1: Ultra-Foreign Language Acquisition? Washoe and American Sign Language

If you native English-speakers thought learning another Indo-European language was hard, try interspecies communication.

Just this past June, chimpanzee researchers Roger and Debbie Fouts retired from Central Washington University. They had originally moved to Ellensburg, Wash., in 1980 with a very special ward: Washoe, the chimpanzee who is reportedly the first non-human to have learned American Sign Language (ASL).

A large part of the Foutses’ research focused on how closely related human beings and chimpanzees actually are – genetically, biologically and perhaps even mentally and emotionally. In addition, as a story in the Seattle P-I describes, their research helped change law and perception for chimpanzees in biomedical research.

Washoe was born in Africa in 1965 and lived mostly in captivity until her death in 2007. She'd spent her early life with Dr. R. Allen Gardner and Dr. Beatrix T. Gardner, who were both professors of comparative psychology at the University of Nevada in Reno. Washoe and the Fouts later moved to the University of Oklahoma. Below is an excerpt of archive footage of Washoe at age four with the Gardners, with a voiceover describing her signs:

Washoe used approximately 350 human words, amazingly, but she also taught ASL to three younger chimps at the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute (CHCI) – Tatu, Loulis, and Dar, all of whom still live at the center. These chimpanzees used ASL not just with their human caretakers, but with one another. Loulis was the first chimpanzee to learn ASL from another chimpanzee, as shown in below footage:

Trying to understand the communication mechanisms of other species’ and the meanings behind those mechanisms is not new – scientists have been analyzing the flight patterns of bees, the sonar signals of whales and the songs of birds as types of “languages”, for a long time. And we humans are tempted to analyze non-human behavior in the context of our own, justifiably or not.

The researchers and chimpanzees had established a mutually respectful system of communication built on trust, and involving human language. However, these chimpanzees' depth of comprehension of human language – and therefore of human thoughts and feelings – is not necessarily the bigger picture.

The Foutses’ research has helped raise an awareness of the interconnectedness and even interdependence of all beings on the planet, giving a broader and richer interpretation of what “thinking globally” really means – or can mean.

Research involving dolphins is equally compelling (see and for more information). And who knows, today’s localization experts may one day need to develop a whole new branch. Interspecies localization may be closer than we think!

For more information about the Foutses and the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute, please visit the center’s homepage:

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