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The Myth of Animal Language (i.e. Chimps don't speak sign language)

 
 
Reply Fri 2 Jul, 2010 11:21 am
This topic came up in another thread. It is interesting enough to start a discussion on its own.

In the 1970s and 1980s several researchers claimed to have taught non-human primates to speak sign language. The most famous was Koko (a chimpanzee), there were others including Nim Chimpsky (ironically named after the famous linguist who emphatically rejects the ideas that Chimps can use language).

These claims are now dismissed by most of the scientific and linguistic community. These claims are not only illogical (if you think about them) from an evolutionary standpoint. The claims also are completely unconfirmed (after all the research done) in a scientific context.

First the issue. Human Language is quite a bit different then communication. Dogs snarl. Bees do a little dance. These are nothing like what humans do. I can use language to express new ideas, and to convey information about things that you have never experienced. I am talking about human language.

The problem with the claims made by animal language researchers is that they fail when they are tested. The claims are based on the fact that specific researchers can pick out signs... the videos of people doing this are kind of funny examples of the human ability to divine meaning from random events.

It is very clear that animals can be taught to mimic human behavior, and can be trained to respond to human gestures and sounds. But independent research has failed to show any example of animals synthesizing new ideas in language, or of understanding the meaning of language (although to humans, training and mimicry can sometimes appear this way).

And, as famed linguist Norm Chomsky points out.... if primates have developed this remarkable human ability, why wouldn't they use it themselves? It would be as if "humans can really fly, but won't know it until some trainer comes along to teach them".




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Type: Discussion • Score: 6 • Views: 16,594 • Replies: 33

 
ebrown p
 
  1  
Reply Fri 2 Jul, 2010 11:27 am
@ebrown p,
This is the complete Noam Chomsky quote (part of an interview)...

Quote:
I don't agree with you about the interpretation of the DNA figures, but if we assume you're right, then the absurdity of trying to teach apes language is even more obvious. Would it be of any interest to train grad students to more or less mimic apes? We would learn nothing about apes from the fact that grad students can be trained to more or less mimic them -- try to get an NSF contract to study that -- just as we learn nothing about humans from the facts that apes can be trained to mimic humans in some respects. Language is a notorious failure, exactly as any biologist and paleo-anthropologist would have expected. But if, say, Nim had succeeded, we would still have learned nothing about language acquisition, gaining neither more nor less wonderment, though we would have a biological problem. Namely, if apes have this fantastic capacity, surely a major component of humans extraordinary biological success (in the technical sense), then how come they haven't used it? It's as if humans can really fly, but won't know it until some trainer comes along to teach them. Not inconceivable, but a biological problem, and about the only conceivable scientific consequence of the ape-language experiments, except what they might teach us about ape intelligence by training apes to deal with problems that are outside their normal cognitive range. This is all sentimentality of the worst sort.


http://www.chomsky.info/interviews/2007----.htm
edgarblythe
 
  1  
Reply Fri 2 Jul, 2010 12:03 pm
I was greatly intrigued by the gray parrot stories and for a time I believed them. Those birds are very smart.
0 Replies
 
sozobe
 
  3  
Reply Fri 2 Jul, 2010 12:04 pm
@ebrown p,
Hiya.

I watched several videos with Koko and there were definitely signs and they definitely had meaning. As I said in the other thread, primitive and rudimentary, but something approximating communication.

That said, I think this summary by Cecil Adams is about where I am in sum:

http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/2443/are-gorillas-using-sign-language-really-communicating-with-humans

excerpt:

Quote:
Today, from what I can tell, scientific opinion is divided along disciplinary lines. Many researchers who work primarily with animals accept or at least are receptive to the idea that apes can be taught a rudimentary form of language. Linguists, on the other hand, dismiss the whole thing as nonsense. Personally I'm happy to concede that the boundary between animal and human communication isn't as sharply drawn as we once thought. Animals (not just primates--check out Alex the talking African gray parrot sometime) can use language in limited ways. They can respond to simple questions on a narrow range of subjects; they can express basic thoughts and desires. I'll even buy the possibility that some are capable of employing elementary syntax. However, all this strikes me as the equivalent of teaching a computer to beat people at chess--a neat trick, but not one that challenges fundamental notions about human vs nonhuman abilities. I've seen nothing to persuade me that animals can use language as we do, that is, as a primary tool with which to acquire and transmit knowledge. I won't say such a thing is impossible. But in light of the muddled state of the debate so far, the first task is to decide what would constitute a fair test.

GoshisDead
 
  4  
Reply Fri 2 Jul, 2010 12:52 pm
Hockett laid down the generally accepted rubric for what a language is and what a language user must do to use it. http://www.ling.ohio-state.edu/~swinters/371/designfeatures.html studies of Koko and Nim Chimpski show that great apes con come very close. However Studies of Genie and the Wolf Boy show that without the proper exposure to language that humans have about the same general ability to use language as Koko.
sozobe
 
  3  
Reply Fri 2 Jul, 2010 12:58 pm
@GoshisDead,
That's a good point. That was an issue with Nim Chimpski too (btw ebrown Koko was a gorilla), that it was too sterile and "laboratory" of an environment, not enough social interaction.

And Kanzi picked up the whole image board from his (mom?), he wasn't the main focus but was a baby and picked it up. (Bonobo.)

As a slight aside, a lot of fascinating stuff about human acquisition of language in studies of isolated deaf communities that develop their own sign language. Greatly increased complexity, syntax, and general "language-ness" within just a few iterations. (Since older kids taught younger kids, no full generations were required in the mature->have babies-> teach babies -> the babies mature and have their own babies sense, the progression was fairly rapid.)
0 Replies
 
engineer
 
  4  
Reply Fri 2 Jul, 2010 12:59 pm
I think the story of Lucy the chimp is pretty convincing. In this This American Life segment, they say not only could she use ASL to communicate, but she could combine terms to express new thoughts. Without listening to it again, I think the example they used was she combined "smelly" and "fruit" to mean "onion". The episode is well worth the $0.99.
DrewDad
 
  2  
Reply Fri 2 Jul, 2010 01:09 pm
@ebrown p,
ebrown p wrote:
The most famous was Koko (a chimpanzee)

Not famous enough, apparently. The Koko that signs is a gorilla.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Koko_%28gorilla%29
0 Replies
 
JTT
 
  1  
Reply Fri 2 Jul, 2010 02:19 pm
@sozobe,
Quote:
I watched several videos with Koko and there were definitely signs and they definitely had meaning. As I said in the other thread, primitive and rudimentary, but something approximating communication.


There's no question that animals communicate and a combination of noises, gestures and body language communicate a lot of different things.

But they don't use language.

Quote:
I'll even buy the possibility that some are capable of employing elementary syntax.


Me too. The other day when I opened the door for my dog to go out, she said, "Not out, idiot, treat", in a woofish accent.
Thomas
 
  1  
Reply Fri 2 Jul, 2010 02:22 pm
@ebrown p,
ebrown p wrote:
And, as famed linguist Norm Chomsky points out.... if primates have developed this remarkable human ability, why wouldn't they use it themselves? It would be as if "humans can really fly, but won't know it until some trainer comes along to teach them".

And how would that be wrong? Humans can fly, as anyone who's recently been on a plane will tell you. And for all but 100 years of our recorded history, we didn't know how to. I agree Chomsky's analogy is pretty apt. But it doesn't rebut the idea of animal language.
0 Replies
 
JTT
 
  2  
Reply Fri 2 Jul, 2010 02:35 pm
@engineer,
The operative words, E, are "they say".
0 Replies
 
ebrown p
 
  0  
Reply Fri 2 Jul, 2010 02:48 pm
@engineer,
I am familiar with the story of Lucy the Chimp, not only from This American life, but from linguist friends of mine. It is quite a sad story for anyone who cares about animals. It is not a story about Lucy learning language. It is an example of humans seeing what they want to see (and an animal trained to go through the motions to please these humans).

Thomas
 
  2  
Reply Fri 2 Jul, 2010 02:53 pm
@JTT,
JTT wrote:
There's no question that animals communicate and a combination of noises, gestures and body language communicate a lot of different things.

But they don't use language.

... by what definition of the word "language" are they not using it? It occurrs to me that "language" is one of those equivocal words that make people think they're talking about the same thing when in fact they're not.
talk72000
 
  2  
Reply Fri 2 Jul, 2010 02:53 pm
Language doesn't have to be verbal. Ants and bees communiucate very well. Bees do the cha cha dance and whirling drevishs to let fellow necter seekers know where the stash is while ant scouts leave chemical trails for fellow foragers to follow.
0 Replies
 
sozobe
 
  3  
Reply Fri 2 Jul, 2010 02:56 pm
@Thomas,
Yes, I think this is one of those issues where the terms have to be set pretty precisely to have a meaningful discussion.
ebrown p
 
  1  
Reply Fri 2 Jul, 2010 03:04 pm
Let's think about what is really happening on these videos. The researchers are fooling themselves and others that these animals are mastering speech.

You have two things, an animal that desperately wants treats and affection-- and a human who desperately wants to converse with an animal. The human an the animal are going to affect each others behavior.

First the human starts making hand signs. The animal starts mimicking the hand signs. Each time the animal makes hand signs, the human gets all excited and give the animal treats. Of course the reaction from the human makes the animal do more hand signs.

Humans have a mind that is designed to find meaning in pretty much anything from clouds to patterns in stars. This human tendency, combined with the fact they really want to show these animals have language, make it very easy for humans to ascribe "language" to the signs the animals (having been trained with treats) are now frantically making in order to get more treats.

Of course, the humans reinforce the animal behavior in all sorts of ways. Humans like animals that respond in human ways toward dolls and magazines. And the animal learns that there are certain signs that are more likely to get treats. This has nothing to do with understanding the language, it has to do with the animal figuring out pattern that will get it treats.

Of course the humans (wanted their work to be successful) are biased to find meaning. The animals will do thousands of signs which the eager humans will try their best to attach some human meaning to. The humans (without realizing it) will simply ignore the signs that they are unable to attach meaning to.

Of course the animals are being trained in their behavior, just like we train any animal. They are really just trying to get treats. They learn subtle patterns that make their humans happy... sometimes stumbling on some random pattern of hand motions that (like burning fruit, or cuddly baby) make the humans really happy... but they don't really know what they mean, after all they are really just trying to make these strange humans happy.

The videos, of course, are quite impressive. But this is not surprising. There are thousands of hours of tape with primate making thousands of hand gestures. From these you will doubtless find a few minutes of tape where the animal appears to be using language.

This is even easier with these animals that have been carefully trained to make hand motions that please humans. But, this is hardly language.



ebrown p
 
  0  
Reply Fri 2 Jul, 2010 03:08 pm
Just for the record... the real reason that I am confident that my skepticism is correct is that I trust the scientific community.

The vast majority of linguists reject the idea of animal language. My belief in the sign language chimpanzees ended when I started working with linguists.
talk72000
 
  2  
Reply Fri 2 Jul, 2010 03:13 pm
@ebrown p,
The researchers looking at languages in human terms it are like the discovery of Canada. The English pioneer asked where am I? The native answers in native language answers (What?) sounding like Kannada. And so it was Canada.

The researchers should try to learn the language of the species in question rather than imposing their impression of language.

0 Replies
 
Thomas
 
  2  
Reply Fri 2 Jul, 2010 03:28 pm
To survey the field of "language" a bit, I'll go through the "language" entry at Merriam -Webster and find the usage that makes the most sense for this topic.

In my opinion, that would be the usage defined in 1 b (2): According to it, language is "a systematic means of communicating ideas or feelings by the use of conventionalized signs, sounds, gestures, or marks having understood meanings". This definition suggests a workable and decisive three-prong test one might run on the animals in question:
  • Does the animal use signs, sounds, gestures or marks?
  • Do these signs fit a predictable pattern?
  • Is there a predictable correspondence between those signs and the real world?
By this standard, an animal can think if the answer to all three questions is "yes". I think it's a fair and workable standard, and recommend that we use it for this discussion. I certainly will.
0 Replies
 
GoshisDead
 
  2  
Reply Fri 2 Jul, 2010 03:34 pm
@sozobe,
sozobe wrote:

Yes, I think this is one of those issues where the terms have to be set pretty precisely to have a meaningful discussion.


Indeed, hence the reason I linked to the most common criteria used by the majority of linguists working today
0 Replies
 
 

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