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dpworkin's avatar

Can infra-human primates acquire language?

Asked by dpworkin (27045points) September 9th, 2009

We know that Washoe and other chimps were able to combine some signs, but is this strictly language in the Chomskian sense, or something else? If something else, what? What is your strict definition of language?

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13 Answers

gailcalled's avatar

If Washoe signed that he loved me and also wanted ice cream, that’s good enough.

Interesting question, though.

Zaku's avatar

“Coco and kitten have visit. Coco love.”

Works for me.

Sarcasm's avatar

What exactly does it mean to be language in a Chomskian sense? Is it that they don’t know what the movements actually mean, just that they result in getting ice cream?

dpworkin's avatar

@Sarcasm, what I mean is that no one doubts that animals communicate. However linguists would say that language is different than communication: it has syntax, it is productive (you can make infinitely long sentences that mean something: “I was walking on the green grass when I kicked a blue ball into the roiling stream and began to think about my mother, who…”)

So, how do you define language, and can animals “have” it?

mrentropy's avatar

Being infinitely long isn’t productive. Brevity, I think, would make a language more productive. I’m sure there’s a few editors out there that would agree.

CMaz's avatar

We humans do “productively” communicate. A constant assemblagemet of words, building one on to the other, for greater accumulation of control = power. Though outside the elm of need to eat or mate.

The infra human primates are doing what they have to in order to get food. The lower order of species are purely operating on food and procreation. They have no inherent desire or need to communicate at such a higher level.

dpworkin's avatar

@mrentropy Productivity is a term of art in the study of linguistics.

Any linguists on Fluther who could chime in?

ragingloli's avatar

certainly.

Lightlyseared's avatar

Yes. Apes that have been taught to sign can handle and discuss complicated concepts, For example they believe that the future is behind them because they can not see it (as opposed the human concept that the past is behind us).

Even bee’s have been shown to use dialects in their language (someone won a Noble Prize for that).

Harp's avatar

The most compelling case for language in non-human primates to date has involved a bonobo, Kanzi, raised from a very early age in a language-rich environment and allowed to acquire language naturally through observation (rather than being trained to elicit a reward). The underlying assumptions were that infants acquire language comprehension before language production, and that comprehension doesn’t require positive reinforcement because the listener is naturally motivated by his desire to understand the intentionality of the speaker and so predict what will happen next. Production would then follow as a natural by-product of comprehension.

Exactly what language is will always be up for debate, but it’s certainly not enough for the subject to be able to learn that certain sequences of signs or vocalizations elicit certain results. The challenge for researchers is to design ways of screening out behaviors that could simply be learned by rote or by decoding patterns. There is also the challenge of selectivity bias on the part of the researchers: favoring results that look like language while ignoring those that don’t.

Some of the markers of language researchers look for in NHP studies are: the ability to use words or signs referentially (“this symbol means this thing”) in a variety of contexts and, ultimately without context; the ability to use those symbols syntactically, spontaneously and creatively (including the invention of symbols); arbitrariness of symbols (the ability to use symbols that have no resemblance correlation to the referent); evidence that the subject possesses some theory of mind (understands others as having independent points of view and knowledge); specialization (use of the signs has no other function than to convey meaning); displacement (the ability to “talk” about something that isn’t present); productivity, and the ability to express new concepts by combining previously learned symbols; and traditional transmission (the ability to learn language by from other users).

Various studies of NHPs have demonstrated all of these markers to some extent. The studies involving Kanzi and other very young primates suggest that neuroplasticity is as much of a factor in NHPs as in humans for acquiring language. The same methodology applied to older NHPs produced very different results.

Chomsky rejects out of hand the possibility of language in NHPs because he postulates a language-specific neurological organ (as yet unidentified) that is uniquely human. The affirmation of language in NHPs threatens that theory, as does the observation that language may be a brain-wide phenomenon.

dpworkin's avatar

Thanks, @Harp. Great Answer.

mattbrowne's avatar

We have to distinguish between language and syntactic language.

Zaku's avatar

@Lightlyseared Fascinating. Though, not all humans see the future and past that way spatially – different cultures (and no doubt, individuals) have different spatial analogies about time.

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