- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 10, 2006

A growing group of animal experts say apes say the darndest things — courtesy of sign language. Researchers began teaching apes to use sign language in the 1960s, and many are convinced the creatures are capable of reaching out in crude but recognizable ways, courtesy of hand gesturing.

Not everyone believes simians can handle true language. Some in the linguist community say they’re merely aping signs taught to them without any sense of syntax or originality, signs that would indicate genuine language. Others, particularly those who work closely with apes, disagree.

Dr. Michael Cranfield, the director of animal health, research and conservation with the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, says all apes communicate in some way, although their methods vary from ape to ape.

Male chimpanzees “try to make the loudest noises to impress the rest of the group to be submissive,” Dr. Cranfield says. Pygmy chimps, by contrast, “settle all their disputes with sex,” he adds.

Gorillas communicate in ways that resemble human methods more than any other ape, Dr. Cranfield says. They may grunt or scream to express their feelings, or use eye contact, or the lack thereof, to tell fellow apes how they’re feeling.

Some communications tend to be brisk.

“If they’re annoyed at one of the younger [apes], they’ll shove them out of the way,” he says.

Ape communication is akin to child development, he says.

“It begins with the mother fostering it … there’s a tremendous bond there,” he says.

Dr. Cranfield, who is director of the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project, which cares for endangered apes in Rwanda, Uganda and Congo, hasn’t specifically studied apes using sign language. However, he says he believes apes possess enough raw ability for simple communication.

The National Zoo said through a spokesperson that it does not have someone to comment on apes using sign language.

Deborah H. Fouts is a true believer in apes’ ability to talk via signs.

“Chimpanzees have been acquiring signs for the last 40 years,” says Ms. Fouts, director of the Chimpanzee & Human Communication Institute at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Wash.

“Chimpanzees do use … American Sign Language in socially appropriate ways. They talk to each other and humans,” Ms. Fouts says. “It’s not like someone just sat down and said, ‘I think this is what they’re doing.’”

Ms. Fouts says current ape research is focused on conversational repair, in which the creatures encounter out-of-context communication and must process it and return to the original conversation.

Not all apes are able to use signs.

“Orangutans are a more of a solitary critter, but chimpanzees are really social, so it’s a natural extension,” she says.

Like humans, apes pick up communication clues from their environment, particularly their fellow apes — or humans under some research plans.

Philip Lieberman, a professor with the department of cognitive and linguistic sciences at Brown University in Providence, R.I., cites a study in which chimpanzees were raised like children to see how much information they picked up by contact.

“Take any child and put them in an environment where people are using language, and they pick up the language,” Mr. Lieberman says. Chimpanzees in the study followed similar patterns.

“By and large, they picked up words in conversation and watching other people using sign language,” he says.

The apes also invented new meanings for existing signs. One chimpanzee learned the sign for “dirty” in reference to a soiled diaper. The creature then called a handlers named Roger “dirty Roger” when he refused to give the chimp more cake.

“She picked up a new reference,” Mr. Lieberman says.

The apes in question also learned nuances associated with language syntax.

With ASL, as in Latin, word inflection reflects past and present tense. Signers change their hand positions to reflect the differences, and the chimpanzees were able to do the same, he says.

Cartesian linguists such as Noam Chomsky, he says, cling to the notion that language belongs to man and man alone.

“But that’s like saying an airplane isn’t an airplane unless it flies 5,000 miles in the air and you get drinks,” Mr. Lieberman says, arguing that even primitive language should be considered language.

Josef P. Rauschecker, a professor in Georgetown University Medical Center’s Department of Physiology and Biophysics, says linguists are split on how close ape communication mirrors that of humans.

“There is more to language than what the chimps do,” Mr. Rauschecker concedes. Also, while humans have a theoretically unlimited vocabulary, apes’ verbal repertoire “will always remain finite.”

Plus, apes often lack the ability to extrapolate the information before them.

Mr. Rauschecker recently returned from a primate laboratory in Japan where researchers taught apes to recognize the numbers one through 10 and touch them in the correct sequence.

However, Mr. Rauschecker says, if someone asked an ape what 21 or 23 is, the ape cannot answer. Humans, by comparison, can learn those basic numbers and contextualize them to understand combinations of numbers.

That said, apes “can learn an astonishing number of items,” he says.

Apes also use facial expressions, an innate form of communication, to share information.

“Observe deaf signers. They also speak with their face,” he says.

This brand of ape research can teach scientists about the earliest coding of language, he argues.

“This is something well recognized by researchers in all fields,” he says. “The modality in which the language is constructed doesn’t matter. Signing is as much a language as auditory [communication] is.”

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